A study by researchers at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management suggests public service announcements that aim to discourage binge drinking by portraying its shameful consequences may backfire, fostering resistance that leads to more drinking. The study, which involved interviews with 1,200 college students who were presented with PSAs based on Canadian ads like the one shown on the right, has not been published yet, so its findings are hard to evaluate. But according to one of the researchers, Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal, people who already feel shame or guilt about their behavior tend to engage in "defensive processing" when confronted by messages designed to trigger those emotions, rejecting the messages and sometimes reacting against them. "Given that the shaming, consequence-centric approach is commonplace in any number of ads focused on smoking, steroid usage and sexually transmitted diseases," notes Ad Age, "the ramifications of the findings could be significant."
More broadly, a heavy-handed, over-the-top approach may invite resistance from people who don't feel shame or guilt about the targeted activity, or have not even engaged in it yet. There is some evidence, for example, that exposure to government-funded anti-drug ads makes teenagers more likely to smoke pot and less likely to accept official warnings about drugs, which makes sense as a rebellion against messages perceived as dishonest or hyperbolic.
In both cases, there is also a deeper problem: It's not clear exactly what the ads are trying to accomplish, or why. Showing a girl puking in a toilet after one drink too many does not tell heavy college drinkers anything they don't already know from personal experience. In the vast majority of cases, such experiences lead to moderation. As they mature and take on more responsibilities, people typically learn to dial back the behavior that leads to trouble. I'm not sure even a well-designed PSA campaign can do much to hasten this process, and I'm even more skeptical that it can help the minority of young drinkers whose excessive consumption continues long past college and seriously disrupts their lives. The anti-drug ads are even less promising, because they aim not to encourage moderation but to prevent experimentation. Since the vast majority of people who try illegal drugs do not experience any serious problems as a result, that goal makes little sense, and the ads offer nothing to the minority of users who already have demonstrated a tendency to excess.