Tapping Fright, Hope For Drinking Warnings

Students Make Pitches in Ad Contest

The first video was created by a team from the University of Virginia and the second was made by a team from Syracuse University. Both were featured in the National Student Advertising Competition. Video by University of Virginia & Syracuse University teams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 6, 2009

When a University of Virginia class got the assignment -- create an ad campaign to keep students from drinking too much -- students knew two things right away.

First, it would be incredibly difficult. Binge drinking by college students has changed very little over the past couple of decades, despite millions of dollars in advertising and countless other efforts to combat it.

"Telling college students not to drink is like telling sheep not to go 'Baa,' " said Avery Oldfield, a U-Va. student from Richmond.

And second, because all 30 of the students drink, they wouldn't be creating a message just for strangers. As Melissa Buck said, "We are the target market, too."

The challenge came from the National Student Advertising Competition which, for the first time in its 36 years, decided to tackle a social issue. It didn't pick a softball.

The 142 student teams worked up ad campaigns for the Century Council, a nonprofit group funded by distillers that has been working against underage drinking and drunken driving. The finalists, including U-Va. and George Washington University, made their pitches this week in Arlington County. A group from Syracuse University took the top prize.

Some groups went with scare tactics: Photos of an 18-year-old girl after a drunken-driving accident, her face burned beyond recognition; of a girl throwing up while a friend holds back her hair; of a guy passed out and bleeding. One showed a martini glass and a foot labeled with a toe tag.

The finalists from GWU -- where a sophomore died this year from acute alcohol intoxication -- said research suggests that those kinds of warnings don't work. They tried to persuade friends to step in, figuring that friends are most likely to be there when trouble is about to start.

"Drinking and friends go together like -- rum and Coke!" Darshan Mehta, one of the faculty advisers, said after the presentation.

At U-Va., the student contestants were stumped for a good message as they read through hundreds of research articles, reviewed past campaigns, conducted nine surveys and talked with 24 student focus groups. All their ideas were shot down, said Elizabeth Mueller, who like the rest of her team has just graduated. "They were saying, 'You're talking down to me.' "

Finally, two of the students in her class suggested: "Live more. Drink less."

A breakthrough. They focused on what everyone loved about college life, changing the first word to illustrate their point: Laugh more. Road-trip more. Kiss more.

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