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Bad anti-drinking campaign ends in regret

Bad anti-drinking campaign ends in regret

I’ve been watching this social marketing cautionary tale unfold all week, from the first time I saw it in Jezebel on Tuesday, to Feministing‘s call for a write-in protest campaign on Wednesday, to yesterday’s news on Adland that the offending parts of the campaign had been removed.

What was the big problem?



Included in The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board’s online “Control Tonight” campaign, this was part of a series of consequences of binge drinking. In Jezebel’s words, the ad “almost defies parody to make the case that if you drink too much, someone might rape your friend, and it will be your fault. That dovetails nicely into the idea that if you get raped after drinking, you should blame your drunk ass friends. Guys, this sort of thing isn’t helpful.”

Feministing said, “Again we see our culture continuing to teach ‘Don’t get raped!’ instead of ‘Don’t rape.’ And instead of teaching people how to make sure they’re properly getting consent from someone they’re hooking up with, our society perpetuates a mindset that makes women feel guilty for a crime committed against them.”

A version included on the site also blamed the victim’s friends:


The ad was voluntarily pulled on Thursday.

Also gone from the campaign site are these other shock ads (images via The Daily Mail):




This is exactly the kind of campaign that cause advertisers think will work, because it’s “edgy”, but which has all sorts of regrettable unintended consequences. First of all, a shock ad just like the “Porcelain Prince” one, above, was found to have actually increased the likelihood that youth at risk would binge drink.


According to Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, ” 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.” That is, the ads actually create a kind of reverse effect by making viewers even less likely to identify themselves with the person and consequences shown.

Which brings us to the even more disastrous shaming tactic of rape victim-blaming.

The campaign site still has this:

“Men and women who binge drink are more likely to have unprotected sex and multiple sex partners—increasing the risk of unintended pregnancy and STDs6. But you can help your friends avoid dangerous decisions that might have lifelong consequences.

Binge drinking can cause good friends to make bad decisions. They may not know where to draw the line when on a date, or when to leave before things go too far. They might forget to use protection and risk getting an STD. Help them stay in control so they are aware of what they’re doing and can make good decisions.”

Which is a little better than showing an image which, in the words of Julie Mastrine, a junior from Penn State University “is very triggering for rape victims.”

I have no doubt that the creators of this campaign meant well. They were trying to “tell it like it is”, using strong words and images to get attention. But social marketing is not just about getting attention. It is about persuading people to adopt more positive behaviours by providing moral (or more material) incentives of altruism and/or self interest. It is a complicated and sensitive matter. And it is very easy to give the wrong message for the right reasons.

Hopefully, this is a teachable moment for liquor control authorities around the world, as well as for responsible advertisers and ad men and women. It’s not an exact science, what we do. But at least we can learn from industry mistakes.

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

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