Instead of the intended outcome, researchers in this first-of-its-kind study showed that the ads triggered an innate coping mechanism that enables viewers to distance themselves from the serious consequences of reckless drinking.
Anti- or “responsible” drinking campaigns have long been a mainstay of health departments, nonprofit organizations and even beverage companies. Yet alcohol abuse remains a persistent and growing problem linked to the deaths of approximately 79,000 people in the United States each year.
“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.”
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.”
The findings are particularly relevant for U.S. universities, where alcohol abuse threatens the well-being of an entire generation, he said. Each year, drinking among college students contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths, 600,000 injuries, 700,000 assaults, 90,000 sexual assaults and 474,000 cases of unprotected sex.
The unintended negative impact of employing shame and guilt in these ads has implications for a wider range of health related messaging, from smoking cessation to preventing sexually transmitted diseases. According to Duhachek, shame- and guilt-inducing campaigns that seek to curb these behaviors can have the same unintentional backfire effects.
Duhachek encourages marketers looking to influence drinking and other behaviors to convey dire consequences along with messages of empowerment. For instance, providing strategies to control one’s drinking or recalling instances where one resisted the temptation to engage in risky drinking behavior may provide a pathway to reducing these undesirable behaviors more effectively.
“If you’re going to communicate a frightening scenario, temper it with the idea that it’s avoidable,” he said. “It’s best to use the carrot along with the stick.”
Duhachek developed the study with Nidhi Agrawal at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. They interviewed more than 1,200 undergraduate students after showing them shame- and guilt-inducing advertisements, which they specifically created for the research. To ensure no biases on the part of respondents, the team opted not to rely on existing campaigns.
The resulting paper, “Emotional Compatibility and the Effectiveness of Anti-Drinking Messages: A Defensive Processing Perspective on Shame and Guilt” is forthcoming in the Journal of Marketing Research.