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Alcohol ads

I think the BIG BIG issue of alcohol consumption is finally starting to get some air time in Australia. And so I am weighing in with an opinion or two.

There have been some ads on TV aimed at binge drinking teenagers. They are two part ads, one aimed at under 18 year olds and the other at over 18 year olds. I have no doubt that the ads are well-intended and probably well researched. And I still have some concerns about them. So let me take a bit of a tour through human behaviour and advertising. And I am happy to hear other opinions about all this, and I am happy to hear about any research in this area too which might help us get this right.

My starting framework is the following. If we are going to try to persuade (and that’s what TV ads aim to do)…if we going to try to persuade people to act well either for themselves, for others, or both…then certain ingredients need to be present. Let me quote directly, and it’s only one source of course. In this case it happens to be from Bruce Berger, Ph.D.
Alumni Professor of Pharmacy Care Systems.
But there are many other sources which seem to agree:

‘Communication that is persuasive is directed toward changing or altering another person’s beliefs, attitudes, and, ultimately, behaviours. Generally speaking, attitudes are composed of three components:
1. Cognitive…the manner in which the attitude object is perceived,
2. Affective…feelings of like or dislike toward the object, and
3. Behavioural…action tendencies toward the attitude object.1 The cognitive component is the person’s belief about the attitude object. The idea is that beliefs affect attitudes, which affect behaviours. Change a person’s beliefs or attitudes, and you change their behaviours. However, while there are relationships between beliefs, attitudes and behaviours, these relationships are not always straightforward.’

So we have three factors that need to be addressed:
1. Beliefs
2. Attitudes
3. Behaviour

The above comment above about the relationship between these three not being ‘straightforward’ is indeed true. If someone believes that they are person of no worth, of no value, it’s not hard to see how this might lead to all sorts of ways of behaving which is damaging for the person. Putting a question mark over this belief is a good idea. Creating an opportunity for the person to experience themselves as worthwhile is certainly a very good idea. However, challenging a person’s belief for instance that children should do as their parents suggest, or that there is without question a creator, or that people are free to choose their own destinies, is likely to lead to a person simply resisting. Certainly not listening to what is being offered. In various forms of therapy (including narrative, solution-focussed and motivational interviewing to name a few), attempts are often not made to change beliefs, but to work with them and to find ways for them to be expressed in behavioural terms more constructively, compassionately. Banging up against people’s beliefs often just results in them pushing back.

‘Scare tactics’ have been used in the past and they have always been controversial. But it seems there can have impact depending on a number of ingredients. Here is some research about ‘scary messages’. They work when (and I am inclined to agree)…
(1) the message provides a strong argument that the recipient will suffer a negative consequence if the recommendations are not accepted; and (2) the message provides strong assurance that adoption of the recommendations will eliminate the negative consequences.

So a little more simply, if we are going to try to scare or unsettle people we need to satisfy two criteria. A person needs to get the messages that:
1. If I keep doing this…it’s going to be awful!
2. If I stop…things will improve

And thirdly, it seems to help if we have:
1. The absence of coercion
2. The presence of compassion and concern

Okay, so with that as the background, let’s start to look at campaigns and ads that aim to help people be happier and healthier. There are a number of scenarios to this. Here are four:

1. How do we get people to do stuff that they believe is good for them and that they want to do? For example, exercise.

2. How do we get people to do stuff which they believe is good for them but they don’t really want to do? For some, exercise qualifies here too. This is a tougher job.

3. How do we get someone to STOP doing something that they believe is bad for them and that in some way, they would like to stop doing, but it’s hard? Smoking cigarettes is a good example. Tougher still maybe.

4. Okay now how do we get someone to STOP doing something that they believe is good for them, (and ‘good’ might mean, ‘it makes me happy, popular and it’s fun’), that they basically find attractive, and that they want to continue doing? Now this one is getting real tough. But I suspect a large number of the 168,000 young people in Australia who binge drink regularly fall into this group.

Let’s look at each of the above.

1. How do we get people to do stuff that they believe is good for them and that they want to do?
And the example I started with is, exercise. So imagine that we are designing an advertising program aimed at encouraging people to do more physical stuff.

To start with, communication theory would tell us that:
a. We say clearly to the person what we want them to do. Not what we DON’T want them to do
b. We give the person an action. And it needs to be something a person is able to do and is likely to do

So we say: ‘Walk 3 or 4 times a week for 40 minutes’. Okay, this all makes sense.

Importantly, the ad, as per ideas about persuasive communication, ideally also needs to :
a. Fit with what most of us believe
b. Fit with what most of us want to do
c. AND, give us clearly an action to follow through with

For example…

These ads have the element of humour. Always powerful.

2. How do we get people to do stuff which they believe is good for them but they don’t really want to do?
This is a tougher job. But all of the above applies here too.

Littering isn’t good for the look of our towns and it’s bad for public health. Most people agree. Yet many people litter. Why do people litter? Or what stops people from putting their rubbish in bins or taking it away? Well many reasons for sure, so maybe the ads in the 80’s were aimed at the swinging voters who would do ther right thing if they were able to, or simply more mindful of what they are doing. So the ads say ‘Do the right thing.’ So the communication tells us to DO something rather than NOT do something. Here is a very dated corny ad from 1983 which shows just this.

a. We agree that its a good idea to do…X
b. We (mostly) want to do the right thing
c. We are told just what to do…’The right thing’, put litter in a bin. (In fact in this ad we are actually shown numerous times what to do)

Again, the ad fits with what (most of us) believe, that is, that it’s good to have a clean community, and so we agree that littering is a bad idea, and we agree that we should do something about it and we may well take on board the suggestion as to what to do…put litter in a bin, an action which most people can take up quite easily.

I am not suggesting that ads like this turn us all into model citizens but they at least hang together in terms of what makes sense in encouraging us to act better for ourselves and for others.

3. How do we get someone to STOP doing something that they believe is bad for them and that in some way, they would like to stop doing, but it’s hard?
Okay let’s look at how we encourage people to STOP doing something. This gets a bit tricky but smoking cigarettes is a good example. The latest ads encourage people to STOP doing something that they know is bad for them and do something that many people who smoke would like to do, which is quit. Okay so we have a fit with the belief but the action is harder. People would LIKE to stop, it’s just hard to do. But again people are given an action…ring this number!

So here too there is a fit with the belief and an action to follow it.

In the past we decided that scare tactics didn’t work. But we have refined our thinking about this somewhat. If we are not careful we can generate interest where there was none before (with say ads about ICE) but we can also show black horrible lungs, a scary unsettling image and yet hope for a quite different impact. The ad says to someone who smokes:
a. Every cigarette is doing you harm. ( This is scary)
b. You can stop. (This gives hope)
c. Here’s what you do: ring this number (This offers an action a person can do right now)

And this fits with the criteria for a usefully scary ad:
1. If I keep doing this…it’s going to be awful!
2. If I stop..things will improve

Let’s look at another ad specifically targeting adults and in particular, parents.

This ad encourages parents to think about their alcohol consumption and follows the same reasoning. Most of us care about our kids, and being encouraged to think about our drinking and the impact on our kids is a thing most of us would agree is also a good thing. We aren’t told in the ad exactly what action to take, but we are perhaps encouraged to rethink what we do around our kids. So the belief fits for us, and the possible action, a rethink or a mindfulness gives us something to do that fits the belief.

Cognitive dissonance theory states that a feeling of dissonance or distress occurs in people when they do or say something that runs in direct opposition to their beliefs or self-concept. The following ad seems to fit here. Not many parents really want to hurt their children. Yes, some also really do. But this ad is directed at ‘ordinary’ parents who might get it wrong from time to time. And in this case. tragically wrong. It’s a tough ad.

4. How do we get someone to STOP doing something that they believe is good, that they find attractive, and that they want to continue doing?
Now this one is getting real tough. But I suspect a large number of the 168,000 young people in Australia who binge drink regularly fall into this group. So we are talking about young people doing something which they think is fine and that they want to continue doing. How do we encourage them to stop? And this is where the anti-binge drinking ads come in. Here is the one aimed at under 18 year olds:

I am aware that that not all ads are aimed at all people, that each have target different groups, and that this one is designed to encourage younger teenagers to look after themselves. I agree with the intention but have some doubts about its effectiveness.

A lot of what is shown is actually attractive to young people. Drinking in parks is not something that I think is fabulous but this is irrelevant. Many quite ordinary otherwise ‘good’ kids do this regularly. So much of what we see in the lead up to the ‘disaster’ is seen as good. No matter what I might think, lots of young people like the idea of getting drunk and do so as quickly as possible. Some of the disasters; the running over by a car, are horrible…but hey…stuff happens doesn’t it? The possibly unwanted sex is not wonderfully attractive…but then again…and it matters not what I think…is this really that unattractive and unwanted…?

The following ad is aimed at over 18 year olds:

The dilemma for each of these ads is that they are in competition with the attraction of getting drunk. And the many many kids who are getting drunk are not for the most part ‘troubled’ kids (to use a bit of shorthand here). They are ordinary kids trying to have a good time. And the dilemma is that while NOT falling over and NOT being hit by a car are reasonably desirable, they are seen as simply part of the way things are, and the attraction of getting drunk I suspect is a much stronger pull than the fear of a possible disaster.

The crash into a table…yes…horrible…but…stuff again…happens doesn’t it? The ‘disaster’ of the fight in the bar is, I would suggest, not seen by many young men as a disaster at all.
Lots of young men don’t think fighting is especially okay but will certainly push back if pushed. And ‘stepping up’ like this is seen as a good thing by many young men. So we have a double banger here where both getting drunk, and defending yourself (fighting) are seen as good things. The ad suggests that getting drunk and/or fighting are undesirable and this is simply out of step with what a lot of young people think.

So with these ads what we have is:
a. The message does NOT fit with an existing belief. It clashes
b. The message of what to do does NOT fit with what people want to do
c. The message is DON’T do something rather than DO something and this does not fit with communication principles
d. There is no possible action suggested (whether it fits with belief systems or not)

Elsewhere I have posted the following comments from Professor Christine Griffin of the UK. I will repeat them here. She says that:

‘Adverts that show drunken incidents, such as being thrown out of a nightclub, being carried home or passing out in a doorway, are often seen by young people as being a typical story of a ‘fun’ night out, rather than as a cautionary tale.’


‘Not only does being in a friendship group legitimise being very drunk – being the subject of an extreme drinking story can raise esteem within the group.’

The ads below from the UK seem somewhat different and I have put them here by way of contrast. Take a look at these first two.

While these ads do not fit snugly with the principle of communication: That is, to say clearly what you want rather than what you don’t want, and they do have the dilemma of competing with the attraction of getting drunk, they also still have things that seem to be useful. They do meet the criteria of an unsettling message:
a. Most people believe if they continue to do this there may well be a disaster
b. Most people believe if they stop doing this, life will be better

The ads are aimed at teenagers and don’t show the attractive stuff about drinking…the actual getting drunk, and the fighting…they show the possible results of drinking that in themselves, many young people may well not want. And while not exactly humorous, they are kind of interesting. A bonus.

The ad that follows also does not fit well with communicating principles in that it does not directly say WHAT to do, but it does fit with what many young people believe. It shows what is likely to be a genuinely unwanted outcome of drinking. In this case, not only unwanted sex but what looks like gang rape. And as something unwanted this does fit with what many young people, female and male, think is a horrible thing.

This last ad below is aimed squarely at parents and fits reasonably well many of the criteria discussed above. The message is a DON’T message and this is perhaps not ideal and finishes by showing an image of what to NOT do…perhaps the ad serves as a reminder for parents who love their kids. that is, most parents, and encourages us to…’think about it…do the right thing.’

None of this is simple. And everyone is trying to get it right. And when we get it wrong, change it and get it right. Let’s keep on trying, experimenting and evaluating…and doing more of what may just help keep our kids well and happy.

1 thought on “Alcohol ads”

  1. Hi Pete. I am finding so much on your website that is inspiring and helps me to reflect, for the most part, in a simple way, which is a great thing for me. Heartful stuff.

    The Gruen Transfer recently looked at drinking education campaign ads, and the difficulties with ‘selling the message’. You could probably catch up with that online.


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