Page last updated: July 6, 2012
Young people - what messages on alcohol would make them take notice and affect their drinking? An interesting new study funded by Comic Relief and Alcohol Research UK

Gender Alcohol and interventions In spite of its uninspiring title, and a small cohort (30 interviewed in depth) a study by Dr Richard de Visser (University of Sussex) Prof Jonathan Smith (Birkbeck, University of London) and Prof Charles Abraham (Peninsula College of Medicine & Dentistry) provides some interesting insights into young people’s reactions to public health messages on drinking and binge drinking.

Key findings Attitudes toward public health campaigns were most positive among the youngest age group: older experienced drinkers tended to be more cynical or skeptical about the impact of mass media messages about alcohol. The severe risks often focused on in public health campaigns were considered by participants as irrelevant: they were perceived to be unlikely to happen, or at least unlikely to happen to them. Many young people thus failed to see the personal relevance of many health promotion intervention messages. However, among the youngest age group there was some support for shock tactics. Interviewees’ accounts suggested that health promotion campaigns may be more effective at deterring young non-drinkers from drinking rather than changing the behaviour of people with personal experience of alcohol use.

Rather than developing generic ‘one size fits all’ messages on television, posters, or billboards, better use could be made of targeted advertising and viral marketing via popular internet sites, and social networking sites. Social networking sites could also be key methods for norm-based marketing to change perceptions of acceptable behaviour when drinking and the social and interpersonal consequences of excessive alcohol consumption. Such approaches may be strengthened by focusing on the image, reputation, and safety concerns noted above.

It was suggested by older participants that moderate drinking messages in television or internet advertising would be most effective if they were reinforced in drinking contexts. Rather than attempting to change people’s views of the desirability of drinking per se, a more effective approach may be to focus onreputation- and image-related concerns that are already relevant to them. Given the role of alcohol in socialising and the importance of not embarrassing oneself, an effective approach may be to focus on embarrassing drunken behaviour. At a bare minimum, respondents suggested that for campaigns and interventions to be effective, they should be tailored to address the concerns of sub-groups of men and women of different ages. For example, the youngest age group emphasised the need to target peer group mentality, as opposed to gender specific approaches.

Unit-based intake guidelines tended to be considered to be unrealistically low, and were therefore irrelevant. Across all age groups, participants expressed a dislike of feeling that they were being told off or preached at by public health messages. Instead, it was suggested that campaigns should give greater respect to young people: they should provide information and advice, but leave choices about alcohol consumption up to individuals.

School-based education was generally thought of as inadequate. Suggested improvements included making use of case studies which are easy to identify with, and emphasising the physical and interpersonal risks associated with excessive alcohol use, in addition to explaining short- or long-term health effects. There was a general desire for more openness of discussion around alcohol: for drinking to be less of a ‘hidden’ or ‘undercover’ activity. This was suggested as a way to counter the image of teenage drinking as an act of rebellion.

A key finding was the general lack of agreement that any single approach would reduce problematic alcohol consumption among young people, with disagreement regarding actual messages and how they should be presented. Different messages and media may be more effective among different age and sex-groups, indicating a need for multi-faceted, multi-modal approaches that will resonate with young people. Source: Gender Alcohol and interventions. Dr Richard de Visser (University of Sussex) Prof Jonathan Smith (Birkbeck, University of London) and Prof Charles Abraham (Peninsula College of Medicine & Dentistry).

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