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Anti-binge drinking ads add to binge drinking

Yes, I feel guilty, now pour me three large doubles

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A US study has shown that anti-binge drinking ads may actually provoke exactly the kind of liver-bashing behaviour they're trying to prevent.

Saskatchewan Ministry of Health anti-binge drinking posterResearchers at the Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management showed 1,200 undergraduates anti-booze ads based on those used in Canadian campaigns, such as the Saskatchewan Ministry of Health example seen here.

Sadly, it emerged that the ads' reliance on guilt and shame to provoke abstinential remorse backfires because people already feeling these "instinctively resist messages that rely on those emotions, and in some cases are more likely to participate in the behavior they're being warned about", as Advertising Age summarises.

Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal explained that this process is known as "defensive processing", in which the ads' targets "tend to disassociate themselves with whatever they are being shown in order to lessen those emotions".

The result? A few quick liveners to numb the pain.

Worse still, the finger-wagging ads will cause the same defensive processing in an individual who's feeling guilty about some other shameful behaviour. Agrawal noted: "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."

Agrawal insisted: "There's a lot of money spent on these ads that could be put to better use."

The professor had a suggestion for ad makers attempting to warn of the dire consequences of smoking, sexually transmitted diseases or other hazards: spread the word in positive surroundings, "such as in a sitcom or a positive magazine article", because they have "a better chance at resonating than those placed in tense or negative contexts".

Anti-alcohol groups, specifically, would "be better served focusing their messages around how to avoid situations that lead to binge drinking than on the consequences of the behavior, because attempting to shame people out of binge drinking doesn't work".

The findings are published in the Journal of Marketing Research later this year. ®

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