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Guilt-Based PSAs Have Opposite Impact

Public service announcements (PSAs) are meant to contribute something positive to the community. In the case of PSAs aimed at shaming college students out of drinking activities may instead send them back to the bottle.

The New York Daily News recently reported on a new study that found PSAs that strongly associate binge drinking with shame and guilt may only foster resistance to the message, creating an opposite effect.

Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management completed this five-part study in which 1,200 undergraduate students were surveyed. The study included showing these students anti-alcohol ads that relied heavily on the self-disgust associated with binge drinking to make their point.

According to Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal, “defensive processing” can cause an individual already feeling guilt or shame to react against PSAs that pile more of it on by rejecting the message and resorting to the behavior. In fact, someone does not have to be feeling guilty about drinking to be sent on a binge by a shaming PSA.

“If you’re talking to a student about cheating on an exam, and one of those ads comes up, you can bet they are headed straight to the bar,” said Agrawal who conducted the study with her Indiana University colleague, Adam Duhacheck. “There’s a lot of money spent on these ads that could be put to better use.”

Agrawal also suggested that positioning PSAs in less heavy-handed environments, like a sitcom, could help to reduce resistance. She also recommended that anti-alcohol organizations would be better to focus their message on how to avoid the situations that lead to binge drinking.

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