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PSAs playing on guilt ineffective

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois will release a study that shows PSAs discussing binge drinking may actually lead to higher incidence of binge drinking. The study is to be printed in the Journal of Marketing Research later this year. 

The study is based on interviews with undergraduate students who were shown anti-alcohol ads similar to those which ran in Canada during an awareness campaign. The study is reported to show that the PSAs, which rely on guilt and shame, actually have the opposite effect.

According to the report, the target audience already feels guilty about their behavior and resists advertisements that play on this emotion. The study suggests these feelings cause the audience to disassociate themselves from the problem, thereby increasing the chances they will participate in risky drinking. 

Researcher Nidhi Agrawal suggests the advertisements meant to shame people into avoiding harmful behaviors may fuel the opposite. This includes anti-use campaigns that address smoking, violence, steroids, and sexually transmitted diseases. FaceDown

"There's a lot of money spent on these ads that could be put to better use," she said.

Agrawal suggests a more effective approach would be to weave positive messages into popular TV shows and to focus upon avoiding situations that lead to binge drinking. She believes these are better methods to address the problem than highlighting the consequences that result from it.  

"It's important that the messages be toned down and as positive as possible," she said.

Agrawal also suggests that a person doesn't necessarily need to be feeling guilty about drinking. They could be ashamed about anything they've done to cause feelings of guilt and then be sent on a binge by a PSA.  

"If you're talking to a student about cheating on an exam," she said, "and one of those ads comes up, you can bet they are headed straight to the bar."

Argawal's research backs the findings of a similar study in England. 

In 2008, the U.K.'s Daily Mail  reported studies conducted by the University of Bath and the University of London found the government's campaign to be ineffective because students did not relate their drinking habits to those depicted by advertising messages. The anti-bingeing campaign featured young drinkers injuring themselves, smearing vomit in their hair, and changing their behavior from passive to violent in print publications and television ads.  

The research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, conducted over a three-year period, and focused on 216 ads that ran in England. Those studied did not associate themselves with binge-drinking behavior, but conversely, they identified themselves with ads that showed drinking as being a fun, positive, and social activity.  

Based on the results of the study, both universities urged the British government to reconsider the type of health-related campaigns. Professor Christine Griffin, the leader of the study, stated her recommendation would be to stop making generalizations that demonized young drinker's behavior. 

Professor Chris Hackley, University of London concurred.

"The study," he said, "suggests a radical re-thinking of national alcohol policy is required which takes into account the social character of alcohol consumption and the identity implications for young people."

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