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Drug PSA puts the “retch” in wretched social marketing

Posted by Tom Megginson | 1-06-2012 20:42 | Category: Drugs


Robotripping is a slang term for taking more than the recommended maximum dose of Dextromethorphan (DXM), a common ingredient in over-the-counter cough syrups.

According to Wikipedia:

Dextromethorphan, when consumed in low “recreational doses” (between 100 & 200 mg), is described as having a euphoric effect. With middle doses (about 400 mg, or 2.5 to 7.5 mg/kg), intense euphoria, vivid imagination, and closed-eye hallucinations may occur. With high doses (600 mg, or 7.5 mg/kg and over), profound alterations in consciousness have been noted, and users often report out-of-body experiences or temporary psychosis. Flanging (speeding up or slowing down) of sensory input is also a characteristic effect of recreational use.

dxmstories.org has a different take, focussing on the unpleasant side-effects of taking high doses of cough syrup (which includes many other toxins) like vomiting—which they document in great detail on the interactive site, as well as the online PSA:

Note the fake vertical iPhone video style, which gradually widens.

[More after the break]



Does this campaign remind you of anything? It reminds me of this infamous binge ad by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario:


The reason that ad is “infamous”, among social marketers, is that it was one of the campaigns studied by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management when they found that scare tactics are worse than useless in certain kinds of PSA campaigns.

At the risk of boring you by quoting the study that I always bring up in cases like these, I’ll cut to the bottom line (via Ad Age):

The five-part study—based on interviews with 1,200 undergraduate students shown ads created for the research that were modeled after anti-alcohol ads that ran in Canada—faults the ads’ reliance on “self-conscious” emotions such as guilt and shame to make their point.
It has long been assumed, of course, that guilt and shame were ideal ways of warning of the dangers associated with binge drinking and other harmful behaviors, because they are helpful in spotlighting the associated personal consequences. But this study found the opposite to be true: Viewers already feeling some level of guilt or shame instinctively resist messages that rely on those emotions, and in some cases are more likely to participate in the behavior they’re being warned about.

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.

Now, that’s no guarantee that this ad and web site will send all viewers straight for the medicine cabinet, but it does not bode well for what I’m sure was a well-intentioned social campaign.

And why is it that so many shock and awe ads continue to be made? My opinion is that there are two forces at play:

1) The advertisers themselves often feel a lot of anger and frustration towards the behaviour they are condemning. Think of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Can you imagine them creating a positive campaign about teenagers choosing to drink alcohol responsibly? No, because they think everyone is as appalled by the effects of alcohol on society as the families of victims of drunk drivers.

2) The agencies that create the campaigns too often take on loss-leader and pro-bono clients not because they truly believe in the cause, but because the topic provides material for edgy campaigns that get talked about and win awards. Positivity is, quite simply, hard to do in a way that turns heads. For every “Embrace Life” or “15 and Falling” — excellent campaigns that reinforce desired behaviour with authentic emotion or humour — there are thousands and thousands of dmxstories.orgs.

Hat tip to Alex.


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