I’ve long held the belief that anti-alcohol ads that attempt to stop people from drinking by trying to make them feel guilty are ineffective. Pointing out the harm that such people may cause to themselves or others never seemed like the right way to encourage responsible behavior. Many, if not most, people who abuse alcohol, or any other substance, usually do so for some underlying reason. Attacking the result and not the cause always seemed like the wrong approach, like blaming the gun instead of the person who pulled the trigger. It turns out my intuition may have been correct after all.
A study soon to be published in the April edition of the Journal of Marketing Research appears to confirm that. The article, Emotional Compatibility and the Effectiveness of Antidrinking Messages: A Defensive Processing Perspective on Shame and Guilt by Nidhi Agrawal and Adam Duhachek, is based on research conducted at the University of Indiana. Their research revealed that not only do such guilt-ridden ads not work, but they actually exacerbate the problem, making it worse.
According to IU researcher Duhachek:
“The public health and marketing communities expend considerable effort and capital on these campaigns but have long suspected they were less effective than hoped,” said Adam Duhachek, a marketing professor and co-author of the study. “But the situation is worse than wasted money or effort. These ads ultimately may do more harm than good because they have the potential to spur more of the behavior they’re trying to prevent.”
That’s right folks, the neo-prohibitionist groups that have been trying to guilt people into not drinking have actually been making people drink more, perhaps causing more harm than if they’d just shut up and let people live their lives.
Here’s more about the study from a recent press release from the Indiana University Newsroom:
Duhachek’s research specifically explores anti-drinking ads that link to the many possible adverse results of alcohol abuse, such as blackouts and car accidents, while eliciting feelings of shame and guilt. Findings show such messages are too difficult to process among viewers already experiencing these emotions — for example, those who already have alcohol-related transgressions.
To cope, they adopt a defensive mindset that allows them to underestimate their susceptibility to the consequences highlighted in the ads; that is, that the consequences happen only to “other people.” The result is they engage in greater amounts of irresponsible drinking, according to respondents.
“Advertisements are capable of bringing forth feelings so unpleasant that we’re compelled to eliminate them by whatever means possible,” said Duhachek. “This motivation is sufficiently strong to convince us we’re immune to certain risks.”
So essentially, the ads trigger a defense mechanism that causes people “to believe that bad things related to drinking can only happen to others and can actually increase irresponsible drinking.”
An anti-alcohol group’s PSA equating beer with heroin. It was never funny, and I always found it offensive, but it turns out it may have even driven people to drink more. You can also see more of the ads the researchers used for their study at the Media Awareness Network.
Even though the study won’t be published until next month, you can read an advance pdf of it at the Advance Articles page of the Journal (it’s the sixth one from the top). The study is 32-pages long, with another 10 pages of bibliography and other supporting data.
While the study stops short of suggesting that such ads have over time made teens and other target demographics drink more, they do caution that future ads seeking to curb dangerous behaviors employing “guilt and shame appeals should be used cautiously.” Essentially, they politely suggest that the anti-alcohol community think about what they’re doing and the consequences of ad campaigns that do not include a well-planned media strategy. What I wonder is whether or not the groups responsible for such ads will feel any guilt themselves for driving people to drink more.
UPDATE: Advertising Age had another story about this study, but from the perspective of the journal article’s other author, Nidhi Agrawal, from the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.