Challenging Dogma - Fall 2009

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Too Many Flaws in “After Too Many” Binge Drinking Intervention – Daniel Amante

I. Introduction

Despite an increase in intervention campaigns, the prevalence of binge drinking among college students has continued to increase over the past few years (1). While various studies have found that some interventions yield positive results, several campaigns have failed to connect with students effectively (2-5). Although the appropriate research studies needed to support my claim have yet to be conducted, I believe the After Too Many anti-binge drinking campaign is not only failing to appropriately connect with its targeted audience, but may actually be doing more harm than good.

The After Too Many campaign was started in 2006 in Northern California by the Youth Leadership Institute. It attempts to influence students to stop binge drinking by highlighting embarrassing things students do when intoxicated. It does so through various media advertisements such as posters, videos, and an interactive website. All three of these methods will most likely end up as failed attempts for reasons that will be discussed over the next several paragraphs.

II. Critique of the After Too Many anti-binge drinking campaign

This section is dedicated to explaining why the After Too Many campaign will ultimately result in failure. First, the campaign fails to deliver a realistic message that makes students think about the actual benefits and risks of not binge drinking. Secondly, the campaign not only fails to de-emphasize the prevalence of binge drinking among college students, I believe it makes students believe that binge drinking is even more common than it really is. Lastly, the campaign fails to make an appropriate promise that is necessary to produce a change in behavior. In order to accurately explain the deficiencies of this campaign, a description of each type of advertisement is required.

After Too Many created five different posters which have been displayed around 12 universities in California. All of the posters have the same general layout and attempt to deliver the same message. The message portrayed is that a student’s “Beer” tells the drinker to do embarrassing things. The five posters read; My Beer Told Me To Puke On My Girlfriend, My Beer Told Me To Drive Into a Tree, My Beer Told Me to Punch My Best Friend, My Beer Told Me To Piss My Pants, and My Beer Told Me to Blow the Football Team.

The two videos that the campaign created are of similar nature to the posters in that they talk about poor decisions that will be made after consuming too much alcohol. Both of the videos, which can be found online and have been aired on TV, feature two friends talking about their plans to go to a party. The first video features two girls talking in the bathroom about a party one of them plans on attending. Both girls are attractive, happy, and excited about the party. The party is described as the one that “all the cute boys go to.” The girl who is attending the party says that she will probably mess around with a few of the players. She then says, while laughing, that she is going to sleep with the whole team. The last thing she says is, “Yeah, I bet I’m going to get pregnant.” The commercial ends with the other girl shrugging off the “getting pregnant” comment with a nonchalant, “Eh, what can you do?”

The second video features two athletic looking guys walking down the street. They are talking about a party at their friend’s parents’ house that is described as being “so cool.” Similar to the first video, one of the guys is talking about his plans for the night. He says that he can’t wait to mess up the house, kick his foot through his friend’s big screen TV and “piss” all over the favorite rug of his friend’s mother. They then talk about a pretty girl who is attending the party. The ad finishes with the guy saying that he is going to rape the pretty girl and that it is going to be “so much fun.” Both videos end with the phrase “AFTER TOO MANY DRINKS THIS ISN’T JUST TALK.”

The website is called “Unhappy Hour” and upon entering, four options are displayed on the backdrop of a run-down, abandoned house. The first option, Binge 101, gives a description of what binge drinking is. The second option, Under the Label, presents facts about alcohol consumption as you scroll over various empty bottles. The third option, The Hard Stuff, is where you can find the posters and the videos described above. The last option, Crashing the Party, gives instructions to students, parents, teachers, and researchers about how they can help reduce binge drinking (although the researchers section has yet to be completed).

Criticism A. Failure to Deliver a Realistic Message that Discourages Behavior

The most obvious fault of the campaign is that all three types of advertisements fail to deliver a realistic message that would discourage students from engaging in binge drinking. College-aged students are known to participate and even seek out risky behaviors (6-8). The messages found in the posters about puking, pissing, getting into fights, hitting a tree, or hooking up with people while intoxicated are intended to deter students from binge drinking. The problem is that these “negative” activities are often the most important part of the many stories told by students after a drunken weekend of binge drinking. In many cases, these stories are even exaggerated and glorified by the guilty party in attempt to impress peers. The fact that their beer “told” them to do such foolish acts makes the posters more comical than effective, as students are fully aware that a beer is unable to talk.

Similar to the posters, the majority of each video highlights the risky behaviors that many students pursue. Unlike the posters, the videos go from fairly normal risky behaviors immediately followed by incredibly serious situations, such as intending to get pregnant or raping a girl. While both pregnancies and sexual assault have been highly associated with alcohol use (9,10), to portray either of these events as being desirable due to consumption of alcohol comes across as ridiculous and unrealistic. It is extremely unlikely that students would ever plan on making such terrible decisions before drinking. While the intent of the ad is to emphasize poor decision-making when under the influence of alcohol, the message is lost as they attempt to make light of such unfortunate and horrific situations. Further more, especially considering the particular target audience, there will be a fair amount of optimistic bias associated with events of such magnitude (11,12). Optimistic bias occurs when a person believes that an undesirable outcome is less likely to happen to them than to others (12).

The website also fails to connect to students in a realistic manner. The backdrop image of a rundown, abandoned house with eerie sound effects in the background suggests that the purpose of the website is to scare students away from drinking. Creating the website to look depressing and scary is a type of fear tactic intended to make the students associate drinking with falling on rough times. In reality, however, the majority of college students cannot relate to such a morose scene. A better way to get the message across to students is to frame it in a way that will elicit a desired response from the student. Framing is the process of packaging a program or policy so that it reinforces the public’s core values (13). An example of a better way to frame an anti-binge drinking intervention would be to address a core value such as the ability to make one’s own choices. This could be done by having the different choices on the website be depicted as roads on a map, emphasizing that the student can “choose” which direction they wish to go.

Criticism B. Failure to De-Emphasize the Prevalence of Binge Drinking

Another point of failure in this campaign is that it neglects to de-emphasize the prevalence of binge drinking. While binge drinking is obviously a topic of serious concern, several studies show that students will consistently overestimate the amount of students that are actually binge drinking (14). Instead of presenting facts to students about the true numbers of students who binge drink, the campaign focuses only on presenting information about those students who do drink excessively. When students hear friends talking about embarrassing stories of when they were drunk and then see posters with beer telling them to do embarrassing things, it will increase the perception that everyone else in their social network is already drinking.

The same effect will occur after watching the videos presented by the campaign. In both videos, young and attractive students are talking about their plans to drink that night. Both of the parties that the students are planning on attending are described as being “cool” places where attractive people are going to be partying. A vulnerable, young person watching these videos will most likely see how happy and excited the actors are. This will influence those students who are already participating in binge drinking to continue such behavior and intrigue those students who previously chose not to drink excessively. By the time the video delivers its final message, which in this case deals with either getting pregnant or raping a girl, the students are unlikely to relate to it as much as they are able to relate to the previous risky behaviors that aren’t nearly as serious in nature. The message that students will take away from the videos is that drinking at parties and acting irresponsible is cool and fun. Since they would never go to a party with the intention of raping or getting pregnant, it is highly unlikely that those situations would have a large effect on the students.

The website also fails to take advantage of an opportunity to educate students about the true prevalence of binge drinking. In the “Under the Label” section, which presents facts about alcohol and student drinking, the website focuses exclusively on negative statistics about alcohol. Examples of some of the facts presented are; Each year college students spend 5.5 billion dollars on alcohol, Binge drinking has increased 125% at women’s colleges since 1993, Alcohol is the #1 choice of drug among our nation’s youth, 60% of students begin binge drinking in 9th grade, On college campuses, 70% or more of the students binge drink, and Two-thirds of 12th graders report having been drunk. All of these statistics are intended to stress the severity of the alcohol problem our society is facing. The point students will take away from all these statistics, however, is that it is normal to binge drink and that if they don’t then they are in the minority of college students out there. According to the Social Norms Marketing Theory, the better way to present data regarding binge drinking is to show students that drinking isn’t as prevalent as they may think (14).

Criticism C. Failure to Make a Significant Promise

A major problem of the campaign is that it focuses solely on the allegedly negative aspects of binge drinking and makes no attempt to focus on any positive features associated with choosing NOT to drink. A key to Social Advertising Theory is to make a promise that is significant enough that it will be able to alter the target audience’s behavior. Generally speaking, the greater a promise is, the greater potential for behavioral change (16). In this campaign, there is no reference to any direct benefits the students will enjoy if they abstain from binge drinking. It is thus important to step back and consider the benefits and barriers students will consider after seeing the advertisements of this campaign.

Let’s first consider the perceived benefits and barriers of binge drinking that would come to mind after viewing this campaign’s advertisements. As mentioned before, students will naturally overestimate the amount of students who actually binge drink. This implies that by binge drinking, they believe they are performing “normal” behavior. This belief would enable them to feel like they fit in with the rest of their peers. Binge drinking may also appear as an opportunity to socialize, to release great amounts of stress, and to enable them to participate in risky behaviors that they normally might not be inclined to do. The barriers presented in the advertisements consist of embarrassing themselves in front of peers, engaging in risky sexual behavior, becoming violent and abusive, raping an individual and getting pregnant.

Now let’s consider what students will think the perceived barriers and benefits of NOT participating in binge drinking are upon seeing these advertisements. The barriers may include isolating themselves from the majority of their peers, not attending “cool” parties where “cute” members of the opposite sex will be and not engaging in desirable risky behaviors, including risky sexual behaviors. The perceived benefits of not binge drinking would consist of not embarrassing themselves, not raping an individual and not getting pregnant.

When considering these perceived benefits and barriers through one of the most basic theories of individual health behavior, the Health Belief Model (HBM), it is likely that students would continue to binge drink, as well as begin to binge drink if they hadn’t done so in the past. The HBM weighs perceived barriers against perceived benefits in order to determine a resulting intention that will lead to behavior. Critical to the HBM is that the perceived benefits of a behavior are influenced by both perceived susceptibility and perceived severity of the problems the behavior will prevent (17). When considering the behavior of choosing to binge drink, the perceived severity of becoming isolated from one’s peers by not participating in “normal” behavior is incredibly high for students. The perceived susceptibility of this occurring if they don’t participate in the common behavior is also very high. Both of these factors will increase the effect of the perceived benefits, which greatly outweigh the perceived barriers in this case and will result in the students deciding to binge drink.

When considering the effects of the campaign’s advertisements, the opposite effect would be seen when looking at the behavior of not participating in binge drinking. While the perceived severity of raping a girl or getting pregnant is very high, the perceived susceptibility that these problems will actually occur is very low. This will cause the influence of the two to cancel each other out to some degree. Meanwhile, the perceived susceptibility of embarrassing yourself among friends who are also drinking is very high but the perceived severity of this problem is very low, because such behavior while drinking has become tolerated, expected, and often glorified. Therefore, neither of these situations will significantly influence the perceived benefits of not drinking, which were already greatly outweighed by the perceived barriers mentioned above. Since the campaign never makes a promise of a significant benefit, there is little to no incentive for students to decide not to binge drink.

III. A Proposal For Effective Intervention Against College Binge Drinking

In order to create an effective campaign intended to reduce college binge drinking, several important elements must be present, and therefore must require a multi-faceted approach. The very first thing that must occur is that the intervention must be able to relate to the target audience in a way that is realistic yet influential. Secondly, the intervention must abolish false presumptions by educating the audience about the realities of binge drinking. And lastly, a powerful promise that abstaining from binge drinking will result in meaningful benefits must be made and well supported.

Proposal A. Relating To The Audience

Excessive consumption of alcohol has long been established as being a significant part of the college experience. Denying such a fact would instantly alienate the target audience. In order to successfully relate to students, we must take a step back and focus on other established aspects of college life that students value more than binge drinking. By focusing on important core values tailored specifically for college students such as sex, independence, control, health, athletics, happiness or academic success, we can design an approach that will not only grab the attention of students but also force them into a “hot state” as they take how much they actually value binge drinking into consideration.

This use of one’s core values in order to prevent binge drinking is a good way to eliminate restraint bias. The idea of restraint bias is that people will tend to overestimate their ability of self-control (15). Often, when a targeted audience sees an ad that is trying to influence a certain behavioral change, they may believe that they have the ability to resist the impulse associated with that behavior. Ultimately, this leads to people overexposing themselves to temptation, which leads to giving in and performing the behavior, resulting in a failed intervention (15). By introducing core values that are very important to the student, it will put them into a “hot state” and enable them to look past the restraint bias associated with binge drinking. By doing so, they may be more open to the message that an intervention is trying to get across.

Proposal B. Exposing The Truth

Many interventions, like After Too Many, ultimately fail because they choose to focus solely on the negative consequences that may result from a risky behavior. The problem with this technique is that in most cases students are already aware of the associated risks and possibly even further attracted to the behavior because of them (2). This is especially true if they believe pursuing a risky behavior is normal, expected, and valued among their peers. A critical aspect of my proposed intervention is to expose the truth about binge drinking prevalence to students. Several studies have shown that students often greatly overestimate the degree to which their peers are binge drinking (14). This leads to a false perception of binge drinking being the norm and a perceived increase of social pressures to perform the behavior.

As the Theory of Reasoned Action suggests, people will adhere to a particular behavior if they believe they should be performing it (17). Whether they believe they should perform the behavior is a function of two things. The first thing is their personal beliefs towards the action. The second is their perception of social pressures to perform the behavior. If we can successfully alter the student’s beliefs about binge drinking by contrasting it against their core values, and if we are simultaneously able to change their perception of the social pressures associated with binge drinking, then according to the TRA, there is a good chance we will be able to reduce the amount of people who binge drink.

Proposal C. Delivering a Powerful Promise

Although the TRA would suggest we have done enough to change behavior, a flaw of the model is that it assumes rational behavior of the audience. When addressing the issue of college students and binge drinking, we face a problem in that people, and students in particular, often act irrationally. Furthermore, we are dealing with a certain behavior, binge drinking, which promotes irrational behavior in itself. That being said, it is important that we deliver a promise that is so powerful, even the most irrational of people will want to change their behavior in order to obtain it.

David Ogilvy, in the book Confessions of an Advertising Man, references a comment made by Dr. Samuel Johnson hundreds of years ago. He said, “Promise, large promise is the soul of an advertisement” (16). The promise that is to be made must be more than just good. The promise must be so great that it is able to excite the students. In order to do so, one must incorporate the core values talked about previously into the promise. The bigger the promise is, the more influential the ad will be in altering the behavior. In order for the promise to be successful, however, it must be supported with effective imagery and factual information (13).

Conclusion – The Final Product

When developing the final product of the proposed intervention, several additional things should be taken into consideration. Such things consist of what types of advertisements will be used, their appearance, and how they will be delivered to the students. The use of poster advertisements around college campuses is a very effective way to deliver an intervention method. The posters should be placed in areas where students spend most of their time, such as campus centers, cafeterias, and dormitories. An interactive website is also a very effective way of relaying messages to students. The appearance of the website, however, should resemble something that students are familiar with and can relate to, such as a dormitory hallway. It should also be framed in such a manner that it evokes a positive association. It should contain all of our advertisements, as well as several facts that will educate students about the true extent of binge drinking that goes on.

When considering the design of the posters, we must be sure that our previously defined goals are met. This means that the poster must be able to relate to students by referring to their core values, expose the truth about false presumptions, and deliver a powerful promise. To do so, we can incorporate a core value into the promise so that there is a direct, negative relationship between that value and binge drinking. This will be our primary message we are trying to get across. We should then reinforce our promise with facts and strong imagery in order to increase excitement about the promise. Finally, we should include facts that de-emphasize the prevalence of drinking so that it makes the decision of choosing not to binge drink easier for the student.

In conclusion, I believe if we take our promise that by not binge drinking a core value will benefit, support that promise with hard facts, surround it with effective imagery and supplement it with information that alters the student’s perceptions of social norms, the proposed intervention will be able to successfully modify behavior and reduce binge drinking across college campuses.


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