Challenging Dogma

Sunday, May 6, 2012

"The Other Hangover": Cognitive Dissonance with Subtlety – Shweta Megati

            In 2010, University of Minnesota launched "The Other Hangover" campaign, an anti-drinking initiative to reduce excessive drinking behaviors on the Twin Cities campus (1). The program was created for the National Student Advertising Competition and won a grant to put the campaign into action. Since then, the program has spread to Augsburg College, Hamline University, and Macalester College.
            "The Other Hangover" is based on the postulate that one's action while drunk are damaging to one's reputation (1), and billboards, posters, and even coasters have been produced directing the public's attention to the social risks of drinking. Is this an effective means of convincing college student to reduce their alcohol intake? Does a campaign that shames students address the causes of drinking and provide alternate means of social interaction? Should a campaign fueled by humiliation continue to be implemented? In light of cognitive dissonance, "The Other Hangover" will likely not be as effective as its creators intended.
            Cognitive Dissonance is the "discomfort and unease that arise when there is a discrepancy between our beliefs and behaviors" (2). Because people desire consistency, would attitudes and actions align and when new information conflicts with either our attitude or the behavior, humans will shift to regain consistency (3). Either our attitudes and behaviors will change to agree with the new information or they will change to reject it.
            "The Other Hangover" seeks to relay the message that heavy drinking will result in irredeemable behavior that will isolate a person from his peers in order to change college students' perceptions on social drinking. In particular, they are hoping that the fear of being ostracized will stop students from drinking too much alcohol.
1. The Culture of Drinking
            "The Other Hangover," through their billboards and coasters, is targeting each individual college student. The message of humiliation and later regret certainly makes its impact by asking if you want to be the person to make a fool of himself, and their 2010 evaluation revealed that 54.8% of students discussed the campaign with friends (4). However, there are others ways of making a fool of oneself, and the campaign, while targeting individuals, does not address groups. More often than not, drinking is a means of getting together or celebrating for college students (5). Greek-life and college sporting events are frequently associated with alcohol consumption. In addition, many college students feel that taking extra drinks, particularly at parties, is done out of challenge, tradition, and social interaction (6).
            The action "The Other Hangover" hopes to reduce is heavy drinking and the attitude they are hoping to change is the feeling of celebration and sociability that college students have come to associate with drinking. That they are attempting to target individuals, therefore, is not completely appropriate. Because college students generally associate drinking with social gatherings (5), it would be more effective to target the whole group rather than every individual of the group separately.
            The billboards and posters are telling. For starters, the images displayed focus only on single people or pairs in the midst of what the campaign calls "regrettable behavior" (1). They are the only individuals even in color while the rest of the students around them are casting them wary glances. These other people are, like the rest of the image, in a black and white color scheme. The color contrast and the expressions of disgust isolate the person in color, but that is more reminiscent of acquaintances or strangers, not friends. Even if the entire group is not acquainted, students will have a few close friends with them (5). In this regard, not everyone will be looking disgusted and shying away. The color scheme also makes sure to have all the drinks in color, particularly in the billboard. The young man in color is holding a full jug of alcohol, but the girls on both sides of him both have drinks in their hands as well. If the color is supposed to highlight, the student's behavior, why are the girls' drinks in color? It does however, illustrate well that more people will be drinking at social gatherings.
2. Can a single event ruin your reputation?
            The next dilemma is with the message itself. "The Other Hangover" bases its campaign around the belief that even a single drunk night can lead to irredeemable actions that will cost a student his reputation. All of the images portray a single event, a single night at a party. This message preys on college students' fears of isolation and failure to integrate into the college lifestyle because of one uncontrolled night. However, there is no proof that the people watching in the billboard and posters will continue to abhor the drunk individual the next week or even the next day. In short, the campaign does not address either the likelihood of the drunk individual apologizing for his or her behavior or the likelihood that his peers will forgive his action.
            In this regard, the campaign is simply advertising the fear that all a college student's friends will leave him or her if they drink heavily and get drunk once. Again, student are likely to face cognitive dissonance about the faith and forgiveness of friendship. This is particularly evident in the target population. While not in high school, college students are still developing and still discovering and determining who they are in the world. Along with that exploration is the inevitability of mistakes. As "The Other Hangover" itself found, after their 2010 campaign, 58.4% of students claimed to have brought up the campaign with their friends in conversation (1). However, the nature of these conversations was not polled. It is possible that students endorsed the campaign and reduced heavy drinking, but it is just as likely that concerned friends comforted each other and reaffirmed that they would not be so quick to judge each other during a drunk episode. The action is friends forgiving a night of heavy drinking and inappropriate behavior, and the attitude is the loyalty and trusts that allow that forgiveness and that are implicit in friendships. This message would likely be most effective on freshman who are just starting out and beginning to make friends. Older students who are more confident in their friendships and companion circles are less likely to be swayed by fear. Considering that the target population will be in their twenties or nearly there, they will have had more than a decade to determine their opinions and attitudes about friendship. "The Other Hangover" is not likely to be able to shake long shaped foundations here.
3. Any help?
            The last issue with "The Other Hangover" comes from the consequences of realization of the campaign's objective. The program targets binge-drinking behavior, but the face of the campaign does not provide a means of limiting one's alcohol intake (aside from personally drinking less) or an alternative means of enjoyment and challenge to counteract the presupposed causes of heavy drinking.
            As evidenced by the campaign media, the only thing students are exposed to is the fear of ruining their reputations. As with other campaigns to reduce alcohol consumption, dependence and addiction to alcohol should be treated. The campaign hopes to "change attitudes surrounding binge-drinking behaviors" (1) but does not provide students would regularly binge-drink with a means of limiting themselves. On top of that, it does not give the students a direction. In the end, they associate drinking with social interaction, so if the shift occurs, it is likely to leave the students without an agreed upon method of celebration and relaxation since they previously associated have a good time with drinking (7). This revives the fear of isolation and separation that the campaign used to target the students in the first place.
            The campaign runs on shame and guilt, which can even backfire and encourage more heavy drinking (8). Students have agreed to being able to relate to "The Other Hangover" campaign more than other anti-drinking campaigns which introduce emotional alignment between the students and the message and causing the students to fear a blow to their reputations. However, this would be a long standing paranoia due to the program not providing means of lowering alcohol intake or other means of partying. This would result in long term cognitive dissonance because the program does not establish what is meant by too much alcohol and what constitutes as regrettable behavior. The campaign leaves these details to the imagination of the students to enhance fear and shame. Unfortunately, humans seek to lower their negative emotions (9), so in this scenario, they would be more likely to dismiss the message of the campaign in an attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance (8). In this case, "The Other Hangover" created media paraphernalia that constantly exposed college students to the campaign: billboards, posters, coasters, and bathroom mirror clings that all have the same message. The repetition and lack of variation in the programs would only increase students' shame surrounding their drinking habits, and students may wind up arguing that not drinking as usual will also separate them from their peers and decide that the campaign is unhelpful.
4. How can this be done better? FMF campaign!
            Anti-drinking campaigns should be about changing social norms (10). It is clear that "The Other Hangover" attempted this, but using fears and guilt are not effective means of communicating with the target population (8). Creating an intervention that would allow for cognitive dissonance to change attitudes and behaviors would be more successful.
            The Friends, Money, and Fun campaign would be designed to excite students and put a positive spin on the anti-drinking message. The FMF campaign will target college students while promoting a brighter atmosphere through media and cater to groups of people rather than individuals.
            To counter the single student focus of "The Other Hangover," FMF will focus on groups of students whether they be sports teams, fraternities, or just groups of friends. Campaign billboards will showcase groups of friends sitting together and enjoying themselves. Some of the students will have drinks and some won't, but all of the glasses will be small. One focus of the image will be that more than one student has a glass of alcohol. The message is not to stop drinking completely, but to reduce heavy drinking. FMF will understand that students drink and that some members of groups that go to bars drink while others don't. The students will be in the midst of a conversation, will all the glasses on the table to demonstrate that drinking is not the point of this event. It is just a means of everyone to have fun. In addition, the scene will be in full color to avoid isolating any one student. There is no risk of being ostracized or of ruining one's reputation, but will show friends as they would truly act together. The focus will be on the friends enjoying themselves away from the actual bar. They will be sitting at a table close to a dance floor and behind them will be more students dancing. The point here is that people won't be afraid of getting drunk. Instead, at the bottom of the billboard will be the message "Stay Sober, Stay Sensational!" The goal will be to keep students from heavy drinking, but the delivery has changed. The catch phrase will be one attached to the campaign, allowing students to recall with alliteration to make the delivery entertaining. The hope would be to convince students that it is more fun to be in social situations when you are aware enough to enjoy them.
            Alliteration will remain a tool as the campaign media utilizes coasters. Coasters will be delivered to bars that are most frequented by college students and passed out to fraternities and sororities as well as on the street to students to cover all on campus parties. The coasters will look like disco balls and in gold lettering will say "Don't Drink, Dance!" The coasters along with the billboard background dancing will provide a separate means of social entertainment while maintaining the overall message of reducing heavy drinking. While other options are available, the campaign will endeavor to remain within clubs and parties to ensure that small steps are taken to change the norm of binge drinking at parties. The emphasis on only slight changes will be made to decrease cognitive dissonance. The location of social interaction is unchanged as is the atmosphere, meaning that students will not need to sacrifice sociability for their reputations. The expected reduction in negative emotions will be more persuasive to students and will be less likely to induce a backlash (9).
            Posters will also be distributed to the campus, but will be placed depending on the poster, of which there are three types. The first poster will be the same image as the billboard and will be hung up in entryways to dormitories or classroom buildings as well as on resident floors in dormitories. Placement at entryways will ensure that students at least notice the posters and the resident floor posters will remind students while they are more relaxed and can think about the message with their fellow residents around them. The second poster will be a picture of a dance floor from above and at an angle, the mood lighting will be present, but it will be just bright enough to catch the enthusiastic faces of the dancers while the DJ is present in the background. On the bottom of the picture will the caption from the coasters, "Don' Drink, Dance!" The dance posters will be placed in the campus fitness centers and in cafeterias. Here, the campaign will target students' fitness habits to reduce binge drinking. Because many students are concerned with their appearance and binge drinking is known for resulting in weight gain, students will be reminded in an environment where they already think about their health to reduce cognitive dissonance. In addition, the coasters will serve as a call back to when they saw the posters and hopefully bring out a desire to drink less. The last poster type will be split into two halves, one side with a party of students and the other side with those same students enjoying themselves outside of parties. The party will be the same for all of these posters, with friends and enjoyment, but different from the billboard picture. However, the non-party activity will be one of three different scenarios. Either the friends will be buying popcorn and tickets for a movie or they will be at an amusement park or they will be on a cruise. The purpose of this last poster will be to reduce alcohol purchase at parties.  Because the same friends from the party are together outside of parties, the poster will imply group budgeting to allow for a variety of different group events. Both sides of the poster will be equally exciting and enjoyable to ensure that students do not feel that the campaign wants them to stop partying altogether.
5. In Conclusion
            While "The Other Hangover" succeeded in provoking discussion in its target audience, the delivery of its message is not likely to reach them. Through careful analysis of future programs with Cognitive Dissonance in mind, more campaigns can be developed that promote reduction of binge drinking without relying on negative emotions that may backfire.
1.      The Other Hangover - Reputations aren't drunk-proof. Available from:
2.      "What is Cognitive Dissonance?" Psychology.
3.      Festinger L. An Introduction to the Theory of Dissonance. Stanford: Standford University Press, 1957.
4.      The Other Hangover. Campaign Implementation and Evaluation Report. University of Minnesota - Twin Cities, School of Journalism and Mass Communication. 2011 Feb. Available from:
5.      LaBrie JW, Hummer JF, Pedersen ER. Reasons for drinking in college student context: The differential role and risk of the social motivator. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2007; 68(3): 393-398.
6.      Foster HA, Bass EJ, Bruce SE. Are Students Drinking Hand Over Fifth? Understanding Participant Demographics in Order to Curb a Dangerous Practice. Journal of Alcohol & Drug Education. 2011; 55(3): 41-60. 
7.      Colby SM, Colby JJ, Raymond GA. College versus the real world: Student perceptions and implications for understanding heavy drinking among college students. Addictive Behaviors. 2009; 43(1): 17-27.
8.      Agrawal N, Duhachek A. Emotional Compatibility and the Effectiveness of Antidrinking Messages: A Defensive Processing Perspective on Shame and Guilt. Journal of Marketing Research. 2010; 47(2): 263-273.
9.      Carrera P, Munoz D, Caballero A. Mixed Emotional Appeals in Emotional and Danger Control Processes. Health Communication. 2010; 25(8): 726-736.
10. Haines M, Spear SF. Changing the Perception of the Norm: A Strategy to Decrease Binge Drinking among College Students. Journal of American College Health. 2010; 45(3): 134-140.

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