Threats don’t work

Liis Velsker
Please note that the article is more than five years old and belongs to our archive. We do not update the content of the archives, so it may be necessary to consult newer sources.

In fight against alcohol and tobacco, fear appeals are ineffective or rather provoke a backlash, say behaviourists. 

Kai-Riin Veromann, a recent Oxford graduate and expert in behavioural studies now employed at the pollster TNS Emor, has, among other things, based her research on a 2010 campaign by Estonia’s National Institute for Health Development (TAI).

She underlines how the TAI TV clip showing the glamorous lifestyle of a drinker ending up in a coffin triggered a strong negative reaction in viewers. The content of the ad was not trusted – after a couple of glasses downed, they haven’t died. The study measured reactions based on three criteria: relevance (identification), activation, and glance monitoring i.e. attention.

In various countries of the world, health promotion campaigns traditionally preach the message of fear, to make viewers feel bad – afraid, anxious, guilty – and by that cause them to think twice and alter attitudes.

«Intuitively, most people feel the tactic might work. Even so, scientific research shows that results of such campaigns greatly vary, sometimes triggering the opposite effect,» said Ms Veromann.

Look away

The reasons lie in psychological defence mechanisms.

«When people are shown threatening or intimidating messages, they selectively will direct their attention elsewhere. Especially this is done by the risk group intended to reach. On the other hand, it turns out that even when people do pay attention, they are prone to be very critical and biased towards the content, aiming to refute it,» explained Ms Veromann.

Ms Veromann fears that the EU tactics to tape photo-warnings on cigarette packs may not be as effective as hoped.

«In scientific literature, all are amazed why things like that are still being done, as for a couple of years it is known the effect may be averse,» she noted.

According to Ms Veromann, Estonia has opted for another and more effective way, and anti-alcohol campaigns by TAI usually avoid the fear deal.

«Rather, they have these witty and to-the-point ads, not triggering the opposite reactions,» she assessed.

Which campaign, then, might work on the target group?

A main target group, with anti-alcohol campaigns, are the youth. According to Ms Veromann, the humorous and entertaining campaigns might work on them.

«An entertaining message won’t be argued so vigorously, and humour is highly excellent in drawing attention – it may also make the message more convincing,» she explained. As an example, she pointed towards the TV ads by Märt Avandi and Ott Sepp warning against drunk swimming. 

Peers get across

What counts is the messenger, preferably of the same socio-demographic background as the target group. «Identifying with the messenger is vital, when it comes to changed attitudes,» she underlined. Encouraging self-control might also grant success – slogans like You Are in Control etc.

Last year, ads by producers of alcohol got 13 days and 15 hours worth of TV time, the anti alcohol campaigns a mere 4.5 hours. The difference is more than 70-fold. «This may feel slightly depressing, but it’s actually the quality that matters. Not all alcohol ads are effective. Some are as good as showing white paper,» said Veromann.

According to Emor data over the past three years, alcohol consumption by Estonians is in a modest downward trend. The steepest decline has come in strong alcoholic beverages – volume of absolute alcohol per inhabitant dropped 6.5 percent. Total volume of alcohol consumed was 10.14 litres per person, having shrunk by 0.45 litres over two years.

«According to WHO, six litres of absolute alcohol per inhabitant would be normal,» said Foundation Terve Eesti [Healthy Estonia – edit] CEO Hannes Lents, adding that the awareness campaigns have failed to significantly lower the consumption.  

Last year, sales of alcohol went up, as boosted by Finns. According to TNS Emor, Finns consume 34 percent of alcohol sold in Estonia, and the percentage keeps growing year by year.