Warning!: Ads Warning about Binge Drinking May Increase Binge Drinking

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From the department of really, really unintended consequences: public service announcements designed to shame binge drinkers could actually increase instances of binge drinking.

A study from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management found that when PSAs try to shame their audience, it can have one of two effects. Either the intended viewer ignores the ad in a defensive posture, or he feels so guilty about his bad habits that he ... well, drowns the guilt in booze.

Here's the money quote from Advertising Age:

"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," said Ms. Agrawal, who conducted the study along with her Indiana University colleague, Adam Duhacheck.

The researchers suggest that the PSA authors use positive messages rather than traffic in guilt, which my mom will tell you violates more than five millennia of tried and true Jewish mothering. In any case, the advertisements previewed in the AdAge article just aren't very compelling: a woman bent over a toilet beneath the ironic banner, "Best night of my life"; a woman slumped on the bathroom floor above the message, "This isn't what they meant by 'on-campus accommodation.'" Um, what?

The problem with these PSAs isn't guilt, it's the PSAs. If you show a college sophomore a picture of a drunk person next to the line "Best night of my life," he's going to smile, nod slowly in knowing remembrance back to last weekend, and continue living his life. It doesn't pay for PSAs to be hip and knowing. Just show a picture of a decrepit alcoholic or something with the tagline "He used to say 'It's only college' too." Or show a dim-witted looking person and make some point about binging and brain cell death. Inasmuch as drinking PSAs can be successful at all, sincerity scares. Irony doesn't.



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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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