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Alcohol in pregnancy ads may leave target audience shaken, but not stirred

Alcohol in pregnancy ads may leave target audience shaken, but not stirred


This ad, from Italy’s Veneto region, translates loosely as: “Mamma drinks, baby drinks. Drinking alcohol during pregnancy and nursing can damage the physical and mental development of your baby”.

The campaign site,, goes on to say (again, roughly translated):

The 65% of pregnant women who consume alcoholic beverages risk compromising the health of their baby in a permanent fashion.

The exact quantity is not known, and for this reason the World Health Organization recommends to women to abstain completely from alcohol when:

• they want to have a baby
• they are pregnant
• they are breastfeeding

And family, doctors, and trusted obstetricians can help them to remember!

According to the Telegraph, there has been a considerable outcry against this ad’s shock value, and the governor of the Veneto region, Luca Zaia, said it ran the risk of giving a “distorted image of women and in particular expecting mothers.”

(More analysis — and a comparison — after the jump)


Similar to the American smoking fetus ads of the 1980s (and eerily evocative of graphic anti-abortion messages):

It’s no surprise that this approach is an old one, as it tends to go against current social marketing theory. As reported in Advertising Age, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management recently published a study about the unintended negative consequences of PSAs that try to guilt or shame people into action.

It is worth quoting here at length:

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.

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.

These ads try to shame pregnant women about having even one drink in a society where wine is considered part of everyday life. Meanwhile The European Alcohol Policy Alliance estimates that one out of every 100 newborns have health problems because their mothers drank alcohol during pregnancy or breast feeding.

Unita’ Locale Socio Sanitaria N. 9 (Treviso, Italy)
Change Marketing

I am Creative Director at Acart Communications, a Canadian Social Issues Marketing agency. Read more