Anti-Alcohol PSAs? Spare Me the Guilt and Pour Me a Drink

Filed under: In The News, Alcohol & Drugs

PSAs may actually cause college students to drink more. Credit: Getty Images

Public service announcements designed to reduce binge drinking in college students may actually lead them to drink more.

A new study found that anti-alcohol PSAs that use guilt or shame to make their point may actually have the opposite effect, according to an article in AdAge.

The five-part study, conducted by Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, was based on interviews with 1,200 undergraduate students who were shown ads that demonstrate the personal consequences of binge drinking.

One of the ads depicts a young woman hugging the toilet, with the headline "Best night of my life." Another shows a young woman face down in a bathroom stall holding a beer, and is titled "This isn't what they meant by 'on-campus accommodation'."

Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal tells AdAge, people who are already feeling guilt or shame resort to "defensive processing" when confronted with more of either emotion, and tend to disassociate themselves with whatever they're being shown to lessen those emotions.

Agrawal says the viewer doesn't even have to be feeling ashamed about drinking to make the ads ineffective.

"If you're talking to a student about cheating on an exam, and one of these ads comes up, you can bet they are headed straight to the bar," she tells AdAge.

The study, to be published later this year in the Journal of Marketing Research, could have significant ramifications, since the shaming, personal consequence approach to PSAs is also common with ads focused on smoking, steroid use and sexually transmitted diseases, according to AdAge.

Agrawal says she has two suggestions for those who make PSAs. First, ads should be placed in more positive surroundings, such as TV sitcoms or positive magazine articles, so they have a better chance at appealing to their audience, versus those placed in tense or negative surroundings. Second, she suggests anti-alcohol messages would be more effective if they focused on avoiding situations that lead to binge drinking, rather than on consequences of the behavior itself.

"It's important that the messages be toned down and as positive as possible," she tells the magazine.

Related: Binge Drinking

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