You have seen the public service announcements—messages like “don’t drink and drive” or “avoid the embarrassment of a DUI arrest.” Advertisers hope these announcements raise awareness and concern in someone who may be abusing alcohol, and spur them to drink less. Does this kind of outreach work?

In a series of experiments, Nidhi Agrawal, an associate professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, and Adam Duhachek, an associate professor at Indiana University, studied how people respond to anti-drinking ads. Their results suggest that the advertising messages may do little to combat drunk driving, and may even encourage the behavior they seek to curb.

Shame and Guilt
The researchers focused on two emotions involving self-perception—shame and guilt. Their approach involves the difference between “incidental” shame or guilt that a drinker may already be feeling, and “induced” guilt or shame, elicited by a public service announcement. Shame arises from concern about how others evaluate someone with a drinking problem. Guilt comes from knowing how a drinker’s actions may affect other people.

For their studies, Agrawal and Duhachek chose ads with two contrasting approaches. In one set of ads, compatible with existing feelings of shame, other people observe the personal consequences of drinking. In the other set, guilt-compatible ads stress how other people suffer as a result of a drinker’s behavior. “Their incidental emotional state can influence a viewer’s judgment when seeing an ad,” Agrawal explains. “The message may induce an emotion that can influence the viewer’s response.”

Anti-drinking ads’ messages may do little to combat drunk driving, and may even encourage the behavior they seek to curb.

Prior research had established that people feeling negative about their own behavior unconsciously safeguard against allowing themselves to feel worse. Agrawal and Duhachek discovered that compatible messages can trigger this overload of negative emotion, causing viewers to “shut down,” diminishing the effects of an anti-drinking message. “We get defensive at the idea that we cause the negative consequences outlined in a message. Defensiveness is a distorted perception of a viewer’s susceptibility to alcohol’s consequences, such as, ‘drinking affects other people, but not me.’ It might even lead to binge drinking, if a viewer becomes defensive,” Agrawal notes.

Specific Situations
Agrawal and Duhachek studied the efficacy of anti-drinking messages in a series of five experiments. The first study explored 478 undergraduates’ reactions to an ad featuring people observing drinking behavior. Participants feeling either incidental emotion reported a greater likelihood to binge-drink. Another study with 182 participants found that students were more critical of an ad mirroring their own feelings. Such a response is indicative of a defensive emotional posture, Agrawal says. In a third study that compared 64 students’ emotions before and after seeing an ad, participants were exposed to compatible appeals intended to evoke a negative self-conscious emotion. “A counter-intuitive finding from this study is that most of these ads decreased the same emotion it was designed to induce,” she reports. A threatening ad leads to defensiveness which makes us more critical of the ad. Such critical evaluation of the ad allows participants to deal with their emotion but decreases the effectiveness of the message.

Another experiment measured actual drinking behavior of 71 students who saw an ad. After seeing a shame- or guilt-compatible ad, students consumed more of a drink presented as a mixer for cocktails than after an ad incompatible with their existing emotional state. “With compatible ads, people are more likely to believe their alcohol consumption will not lead to undesirable outcomes,” Agrawal explains. “Instead of staying away from behaviors like alcohol that could increase negative feelings, subjects dismissed the link between risky behavior and negative emotional outcomes for themselves.”

Practical Application
The experiments convinced Agrawal and Duhachek that, “Compatibility backfires. Incompatible messages are no more persuasive than control conditions,” Agrawal reports. However, public service announcements for all kinds of harmful practices—including smoking or illegal drugs—often stress how other people will view the smoker or user. Anti-drinking ads play on shame and guilt to “avoid the embarrassment of a DUI arrest” or “think of who you could harm in an accident.”

“Our research suggests caution in using shame or guilt appeals,” Agrawal advises. “Marketers should consider emotional responses to a message’s elements, and to where an ad will be seen. For example, a message inducing guilt might not be best for a guilt-ridden T.V. drama.”

The researchers advocate better screening of a television show’s contents. If a situation on the program is likely to induce shame, a viewer already inclined to feel ashamed will have a stronger reaction to any advertisement during the show. “Some research shows that when we watch something in a narrative, we may identify with a character. Viewers might experience a little of the same emotion the character is experiencing,” says Agrawal.

For ads about something as emotional as drinking, Agrawal suggests a neutral situation where people are not already feeling intense emotions. Viewers laughing at The Daily Show or The Colbert Report are less likely to react defensively to a serious message during a commercial break.

“We always think about placing health-related ads on a hospital show. Those programs are already anxiety-producing; you don’t need to show an ad about a heart attack,” Agrawal says. She and Duhachek recommend “a well-planned media placement strategy for public service announcements. Choose not just by target audience profiles and budget constraints, but also on the emotional environment the media content might create, leading to a dramatic step forward in thinking about the [impact] of context on media effectiveness.”

Related reading on Kellogg Insight

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Learning to Use Regret: Studies in the negative emotions and how to use them

Beware the Siren’s Song: Maintain self-control by avoiding temptation