Treatments

Advertising Guilt Doesn't Curb Binge Drinking

Stamping out binge drinking is a tough task. Now research shows that common advertising approaches to curb drinking may actually backfire, leading people to consume more alcohol.

Public service announcement showing drunk girl with head in toilet.

Researchers used the image from an ad by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario in their study. (Courtesy of Kellogg School of Management) hide caption

itoggle caption (Courtesy of Kellogg School of Management)

Ads that rely on guilt or shame are problematic, according to research being published in the April issue of the Journal of Marketing Research.

In five related studies that looked at roughly 1,200 undergraduates' responses to anti-drinking public service announcements, researchers found that students discounted the notion that bad things could happen to them.

Shots caught up with Nidhi Agrawal, lead researcher and associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management of Northwestern University, to find out more. Here are edited highlights from our conversation:

What prompted you to undertake this work?
All of my research deals with two topics. First, the effect of emotions on people's responses to advertisements and consumption situations. And the second thing I'm very interested in is vulnerable consumers—consumers for whom it's very easy to make compromised decisions.

What we examined was anti-drinking messages. We wanted to see if these messages are effective. So much money goes into them and they're intended to bring out good behaviors. But we weren't sure. So we wanted to study what makes ads effective or makes them backfire. And what our research shows is that well-intended anti-drinking messages can actually cause people to drink more. They're not just ineffective and wasting money, but could actually be causing harm.

How were the studies carried out?
Part of what we wanted to study was the effect of emotions, and the two emotions associated with risky behaviors such as binge drinking are guilt and shame. Often, once the damage has been done [after drinking] people feel like they've messed up.

We got people to think about an instance where they felt very guilty or ashamed of themselves and then we exposed them to advertising messages that get them to feel ashamed or guilty. And once they've seen these messages, we measured how likely they were to binge drink in the next two weeks.

In another study, we told people that they were taste-testing a juice that was going to be used as a mixer for alcohol. So, they then associated the juice with alcohol. Then we looked at how much of the juice they drank. What we found was that people binge drink more, in the first case, and they drink more of the juice mixer, in the second case, when they feel guilty.

So, we don't want to overload the consumer with these feelings because they can have a bad effect.

Why is shame used as the means toward change in so many PSAs?
Shame and guilt are very interesting emotions because they are very intense. Consumers often respond to them in a very intense way. So many health messages employ these tactics: See what your risky behavior could lead to? But do these measures actually work? And in what conditions? We wanted to figure that out. That's why we focused on guilt and shame.

Often, people react badly to this. A sort of defense processing encourages them to have another drink.

What do you mean by defensive processing?
The thing about these emotions is that they're so intense and negative because they're self- focused. When we feel guilt, it's because we messed up. No one wants to believe that. We all want to believe we're amazing people. Which is why, when you get people to feel guilty or ashamed, they want to defend against those feelings.

They don't want to feel that they are vulnerable to the dangers of binge drinking if they already feel guilty or ashamed. And they want to drink more then. They have the incentive to show that they can handle it—they can drink and they won't mess up. They think others shouldn't be drinking because others can't handle it, but they can. So, they feel even more entitled to have a drink.

What are the lessons to be learned here for advertisers?
They should be very careful about using very powerful emotional tactics—when we use guilt or shame, or even sadness or anger. We have to have a carrot to go with the stick: it's OK to mess up; you can handle it; here's how. Or you put the ad in the middle of a positive, empowering situation. You want to put it in a situational comedy, something with a lighter mood. Positivity is very important. It can come from the [message] but also from the environment.

How would that work?
Our research suggested that maybe as you're talking to people about binge drinking, [don't just talk about] mess ups, tell them how they can get out of situations that lead to binge drinking. Saying "you're cool if you have only one drink". You need positive reinforcement: telling people new tactics for getting out of binge drinking situations and not telling them how they're going to mess up. Give them a tool to use.

(You can check out an example of positive anti-binge drinking tactics employed by college students in this NPR story from 2008.)

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