Samantha Spady, a Beatrice native, died on the morning of Sept. 6, 2004, in a Colorado State University fraternity. Her blood-alcohol content was 0.436 percent. Police reports stated that Spady drank from 6 p.m. until 5 a.m. the next morning.
Binge drinking is an all too familiar story. In a 2011 survey, 36 percent of college students reported binge drinking at least once in the two-weeks prior to completing the survey. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as men consuming five or more drinks and women consuming four or more drinks in a day.
According to an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association, many negative consequences are associated with binge drinking: trouble with authorities, missing class, hangovers, injuries, and sexual assault. One of the most concerning findings is that binge drinkers, including those who report experiencing these alcohol-related problems, do not perceive themselves as problem drinkers.
Realizing this immense problem, many government health organizations have started anti-binge drinking campaigns. However, surprising research has suggested that these campaigns are not effective in reducing this behavior, and in fact, increase the likelihood of binge drinking.
Over-the-top anti-drinking campaigns are played all of the time, portraying a “typical” college night: students throwing up, making fools of themselves, passing out, and losing control.
A 2010 study from the University of Washington found that these anti-drinking campaigns backfire; they increase binge drinking.
Extreme campaigns cause students to experience an overload of negative emotions, such as guilt or shame. These negative emotions cause students to become defensive and avoid processing the overall message. The danger of this defensive processing is that it causes students to believe that others are susceptible to the negative consequences of binge drinking, but that they will somehow be unscathed by these same consequences.
A similar study conducted in 2006 analyzed the effectiveness of anti-smoking campaigns. Like the anti-drinking study, this study found that current anti-smoking advertisements caused a reverse effect. Researchers found that smokers responded negatively to messages that generated a perceived loss of freedom. Messages that used judgmental tones, talked down to smokers, used faulty logic, or tried to “guilt” smokers into quitting caused smokers to feel defiant. The smokers in the study actually retaliated by smoking more.
To be sure, these advertisements may be effective in preventing students who do not drink from binge drinking. However, research strongly points to an increase in the prevalence of this behavior from students who already participate in the binge-drinking culture of college after being exposed to such advertisements.
Scaring students about the dangers of drinking and over-emphasizing the negative consequences have not been effective. In fact, it has backfired completely. Why not try a new approach?
Researchers from the U.K. also found that these anti-drinking messages were ineffective. Their research found that expressing young people’s expectations of drinking is important in ensuring that students process the anti-drinking message. They suggested using these expectations to create responses to binge drinking that reflect the importance of alcohol to young people.
A great example of this type of campaign was put on by the University of Oregon called “Balance the Buzz: Party like a Champ.” They acknowledged the importance of drinking to the Oregon student body while convincing them that drinking responsibly is not only more safe, but also more fun. Remembering the people you meet at a party is more enjoyable than the alternative. Partying is part of the college experience; the main concern is making sure that it is done in a safe manner.
The sense of togetherness and the social aspect of drinking that is shown in most alcohol marketing campaigns have been ignored in anti-drinking campaigns thus far. Therefore, future anti-drinking campaigns should try showing that drinking has an upside and that drinking can be a fun and social activity, if done correctly.
Government organizations are going about anti-drinking campaigns in the wrong way. These campaigns are causing students to underestimate the consequences of their actions and are causing students to binge drink more. It is pertinent that messages be created that will be processed by students. Hopefully, cases like Samantha Spady and the 1,400 other college students who die each year from alcohol-related injuries can be prevented.
Claire Mueller is a Lincoln Southeast graduate currently attending Pomona College in California.