Mass media campaigns are widely used to expose high proportions of large populations to messages through routine uses of existing media, such as television, radio, and newspapers. Exposure to such messages is, therefore, generally passive. Such campaigns are frequently competing with factors, such as pervasive product marketing, powerful social norms, and behaviours driven by addiction or habit. In this Review we discuss the outcomes of mass media campaigns in the context of various health-risk behaviours (eg, use of tobacco, alcohol, and other drugs, heart disease risk factors, sex-related behaviours, road safety, cancer screening and prevention, child survival, and organ or blood donation). We conclude that mass media campaigns can produce positive changes or prevent negative changes in health-related behaviours across large populations. We assess what contributes to these outcomes, such as concurrent availability of required services and products, availability of community-based programmes, and policies that support behaviour change. Finally, we propose areas for improvement, such as investment in longer better-funded campaigns to achieve adequate population exposure to media messages. Copyright © 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.