The Simpsons: Making Your Children Smoke

I’m sure this study (and I use that term loosely) will prompt calls for more regulation.


Objective: To determine the frequency of smoking on The Simpsons television show, and the relationship with the sex and age groups of characters shown smoking, and with positive, negative and neutral connotations associated with instances of smoking.

Design and setting: Content analysis (performed from January to October 2008) of instances of smoking that appeared in the first 18 seasons of The Simpsons television show, which aired from 1989 to 2007.

Main outcome measures: Frequency, impact (positive, negative, neutral) of instances of smoking; and frequency associated with age (child or adolescent versus adult characters), sex and types of characters on the show.

Results: There were 795 instances of smoking in the 400 episodes observed. Most (498; 63%) involved male characters. Only 8% of instances of smoking (63) involved child or adolescent characters. Just over a third of instances of smoking (275; 35%) reflected smoking in a negative way, compared with the majority, which reflected smoking in a neutral way (504; 63%) and the minority, which reflected smoking in a positive way (16; 2%). Child and adolescent characters were much more likely to be involved in instances of smoking reflected in a negative way compared with adult characters (odds ratio, 44.93; 95% CI, 16.15–172.18).

Conclusions: There are a large number of instances of smoking in The Simpsons television show. Child and adolescent characters are much more likely to be portrayed in instances of smoking reflected in a negative way than adult characters. Viewing The Simpsons characters smoking may prompt children to consider smoking at an early age.

I’m really not sure what scientific value counting the exact number of smoking instances and the precise negative-neutral-positive ratio could possibly have. The effort the researchers have gone to does not in any way support their conclusion that watching The Simpsons ‘may prompt children to consider smoking at an early age.’ If seeing television characters smoke will make kids want to smoke themselves, which is what the authors seem to think, you’d only need to demonstrate that The Simpsons features smoking frequently. This is blindingly obvious, and the raw number utterly meaningless unless put in comparative perspective. That said, I wouldn’t mind getting paid to watch 18 seasons of The Simpsons.

4 Responses

  1. I haven’t read the study, but I have to say as a Simpsons fan I am pretty sceptical of those numbers. Seeing as the characters most defined by their smoking (Patty and Selma) are portrayed as wheezing, addicted hags, I find it hard to believe that the overall depiction of smoking in the Simpsons is broadly neutral. Perhaps the research wasn’t focused holistically enough.

    • Yeah, I’d say Patty and Selma smoking should always count as a negative portrayal, but I’m guessing the authors would count it as neutral unless there’s something specifically negative like coughing.

  2. Since when the hell was art (if I’m allowed to call TV that) meant to be normative rather than simply descriptive? Will we eventually force smokers walking down the street to portray themselves negatively, least they encourage some impressionable mind to take up smoking? Although smoking in all public places will probably be banned before that happens.

    • I’m pretty sure censors have been taking into account whether undesirable behaviour is ‘glamourised’ or whatever for some time…

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