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

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.



Presented by

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

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. Who cares about youth? James Hamblin turns to his colleague Jeffrey Goldberg for advice.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Never Tell People How Old They Look

Age discrimination affects us all. James Hamblin turns to a colleague for advice.

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

Video

Pittsburgh: 'Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

More in Business

Just In