Study: Anti-Drinking Ads May Backfire
A study from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management researchers polled 1,200 undergraduates, using public service announcements designed for a Canadian anti-drinking campaign.
The team found that youths exposed to the ads were actually more likely to binge drink.
They explain the phenomenon as "defensive processing," when an individual reacts adversely to messages that provoke feelings of guilt and shame. The reaction was heightened among teens who were already experiencing guilt sentiments for other reasons.
"The conventional wisdom from people who design these ads is, 'If we scare people enough it's always going to be a good thing," Adam Duhachek, the study's lead researcher, told LiveScience. "We demonstrate circumstances where they [not only] aren't effective, but they cause a backlash where people actually drink more than if they hadn't been exposed to the ads."
The study focused on two ads: one of an individual perched at a toilet bowl after imbibing too much; and one focusing on the impact that excessive drinking can have on loved ones.
Subjects were asked to reflect on a moment of shame they'd experienced, then look at the ads. Following that, they were asked how likely they were to binge drink in the coming year. The guiltier the participants looking at the guilt-laden ads, the more likely they were to drink.
Defensive processing also had an effect on how subjects perceived consequences. Those experiencing the most guilt or shame were also least likely to think that excessive drinking could lead to negative implications in their own lives.
Guilt and shame are common features of PSAs used by American advocacy groups, including the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Underage drinking will cost you" and "Girlie Drinks, Women's Diseases" are a few recent examples.
The study's results could have implications for guilt-tripping PSAs on unprotected sex, drug use and smoking, among other risky teen behaviors.
Despite the results, government health agencies say they plan to continue their efforts. "Kids exposed to prevention messages are less likely to drink," Peter Delany, director of applied studies with the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, told AOL News. "Content is important, and maybe certain messages turn kids off.
"We're still not going to throw the baby out with the bath water."
But if U.S. health officials feel compelled by the study to re-evaluate their advocacy efforts, they might want to avoid looking to wine-friendly France.
A French government-commission report out this week suggests that wine tastings could be an effective preventive measure to combat excessive boozing among young people.
The report, led by French gastronome Jean-Pierre Coffe, recommended supervised lunch-time tastings, in conjunction with wine education sessions, as a means to instilling in young people the pleasures of moderation.
The French minister who commissioned the report, Valérie Pécresse, endorsed part of the recommendations. "Yes to education of taste; no to wine at lunchtime for students," she said.
Delany, for one, doesn't think it would work in the United States.
"Different cultures and different values," he said. "The bottom line? It wouldn't fly here."