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Good Causes Hurt by Bad Ads

By Pat Heffernan on 1/4/12 12:00 AM

Good causes suffered from a rash of poorly conceived ads in 2011. The usual culprit was a concept with strong words and images designed to be ‘edgy’, but which instead ended up with shock for shock’s value (or perhaps an agency’s desire for awards) and unintended consequences. Two campaigns stand out as particularly regrettable because they not only ignored current behavioral research on effective change messages, but also brought counter-productive negative attention to the sponsoring organizations and causes.

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s ”Control Tonight” campaign on binge drinking

Ad showing woman lying on bathroom floor with headline saying "She didn't want to do it but she couldn't say no."

Eliciting guilt and blaming victims for rape understandably brought an immediate angry response from women’s groups and this ad series was pulled.

Ad showing woman kneeling at toilet with a headline reading "She's got a date with a porcelain prince."

The non-rape ad messages in this campaign focused on other effects of binge drinking, but apparently without considering current social marketing and behavioral research.  In 2010, Ad Age reported on a study by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management that indicated students who were exposed to an anti-binging ad that showed a young woman puking in the toilet actually made the audience more likely to binge.

The reason, said Kellogg marketing professor Nidhi Agrawal, is that people who are already feeling guilt or shame resort to something called “defensive processing” when confronted with more of either, and tend to disassociate themselves with whatever they are being shown in order to lessen those emotions.

And it doesn’t have to be drinking that a viewer is feeling ashamed about in order to render the ads ineffective or damaging. “If you’re talking to a student about cheating on an exam, and one of these ads comes up, you can bet they are headed straight to the bar,” said Ms. Agrawal, who conducted the study along with her Indiana University colleague, Adam Duhacheck.

Given that the shaming, consequence-centric approach is commonplace in any number of ads focused on smoking, steroid usage and sexually transmitted diseases, the ramifications of the findings could be significant. “There’s a lot of money spent on these ads that could be put to better use,” she argues.

Ms. Agrawal suggested two fixes for PSA makers. The first involves media: Ads placed in more-positive surroundings — such as in a sitcom or a positive magazine article — have a better chance at resonating than those placed in tense or negative contexts. Second, she said, anti-alcohol groups would be better served focusing their messages around how to avoid situations that lead to binge drinking than on the consequences of the behavior, because attempting to shame people out of binge drinking doesn’t work.

“It’s important that the messages be toned down and as positive as possible,” she said.

Milwaukee's Health Department Co-Sleeping ads

Ad shows babies sleeping in a bed with large knives within reach, with headline saying "Your baby sleeping with you can be just as dangerous."

With these co-sleeping ads, the question is whether parents are likely to have any reaction beyond shock. New parents in particular, are vulnerable to a 'fear and shame' appeal, when the Milwaukee Heath Department's objective is presumably, to help them protect their new baby from sudden infant death (SID). I was also struck by the 'unsafe behaviors' modeled in these PSAs -- loose, soft bedding and a baby not sleeping on its back -- both of which have been identified as risk factors for SID. Understandably, some parents were angry.

The Take-Away

Strong words and images get attention. But social marketing is not just about getting attention. It is about persuading people to adopt more positive behaviors. It is a challenge to move people beyond awareness to action and ultimately, sustained behavior change. Will cause marketers and the advertising industry be able to learn from these examples and rise to that challenge in 2012?

Related articles

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s ”Control Tonight” campaign

PA Liquor Control Board anti drinking ad pulled after feminists say it's blaming rape on the victims  (

Why Binge Drinking PSAs May Leave Some Reaching for Another Drink  (Advertising Age)

Babies with knives? Co-sleeping ad angers some parents  (MSNBC Moms Today)

Co-sleeping? May as well tuck baby in with a knife  (Baby Shower for Guys)

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