Page last updated:April 2010
Public service announcements designed to reduce binge drinking in college students may lead to increased use
A new study found that anti-alcohol Public Service announcements (PSAs) that use guilt or shame to
make their point may actually have the opposite effect.
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 advertss 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 explained that, 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”.
The study 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.
Agrawal says she has two suggestions for those who make PSAs. First, adverts 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 behaviour itself. It’s important that the messages be toned down and as positive as possible.
The study is to be published later this year in the Journal of Marketing Research.

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