Wednesday, December 5

Making Messages: Negative Means Negative Results

When you think of the most memorable anti-drug commercials of all times, the analogy that likened our brains to eggs usually comes out on top (or at least in the top five). It was straightforward and powerful.

This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs.

Unfortunately, for as memorable as this classic campaign is, it doesn't do the job. According to researchers at Indiana University and Wayne University, negatively framed messages are not the most effective way to reach the people in need of persuasion.

The following advertisement or even the entire "just say no" campaign has very little impact on people who are substance-dependent. In fact, the study found that the substance-dependent group showed little brain activity in response to negatively framed messages.

In some cases, the negative messaging led to worse or riskier behaviors. It makes sense that they would. Most substance-dependent people have already accepted the risks. Intellect doesn't rule addiction.


The real takeaway here is how negative messaging doesn't work on intended audiences. As the researchers have shown using neuroimaging, the negatively charged messages didn't stimulate the brain in substance-dependent people.

One possible explanation might be that substance-dependent people have not only accepted the risks but also developed a resistance to risk-aversion based messages. (The phenomenon might even be likened to how stuntmen, soldiers and others can perform in life-threatening situations.)

Being clever isn't enough. Being positive might not be either.

In lieu of negative messages, one suggestion was to promote the benefits of staying clean as opposed to telling people what not to do or why something might be bad for them. While this might be on the right track, it still neglects the dynamic relationship between substance and abuse.

In order to work, the long-term benefits of staying clean would have to outweigh the perceived and immediate benefits of the drug (from the perspective of the substance-dependent people). Unfortunately, there is a point when substance-dependent people cannot comprehend the possibility. Many of them elevate the immediate rewards that the substance provides until it eclipses everything, including their lives.

From a broader advertising perspective, risk-aversion messaging and negative messaging rarely have as much impact on the intended audience as creatives think. Instead, such messages tend to bolster a deeper reaction in people who see such ads as a clever or emotional affirmation of their own beliefs. In this case, people who would never do drugs. So you have to ask yourself. What's the objective?
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