As with NYC’s previous campaigns against smoking and drinking too much soda, and the federal government’s recently unveiled proposals for new cigarette labels, the public-health messages emphasize negative consequences. And that might not be the best strategy, says Adam Duhachek, an associate professor of marketing at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. According to his group’s own research and to previous work, “there’s at least two things that can go wrong.“

“The first is that people just shut down and don’t process the message at all,” he says. Show someone a nasty or unpleasant picture and they might say “I was having a perfectly nice day until I saw this, and now I’m not going to look at it.”

The I.U. researchers have also found that those ads tend to trigger a “defensive processing mechanism,” Duhachek says. When people are faced with a negative message about a behavior they engage in — like putting away several drinks in the course of an evening — they have to distance themselves from the chance of a bad outcome. (i.e. “You’d never find me slumped over in a subway station at 3am because I’m not that type of person.”)

People tend to think things will go much better for them than for the average person, Duhachek says. “We think our own personal greatness buffers us from all potential negative consequences.”

What seems to work better, at least in a lab setting, is to tap into the more positive emotion of empowerment by prompting someone to recall a time when he was able to resist the temptation to drink and enjoyed positive consequences. There should be some kind of positive message along with the negative one, he says.

via WSJ Health Blog