'Social marketing' brings moral messages home

Your child is cheating at school and you don't have a clue. Or perhaps you are blissfully unaware that your teenager, the one headed to college soon, already likes to get drunk.

Not to worry. Madison Avenue is riding to the rescue with advertising campaigns aimed at changing high school and college-student behavior - and aiding the parenting-challenged, too.

Social marketing, as it is called, uses commercial advertising techniques to "sell" positive behavior. Fastening seat belts, just saying "no" to drugs, and not letting "friends drive drunk" are familiar pitches.

Until recently, though, few social-marketing campaigns were explicitly aimed at students or education problems. But with cheating, drinking, and violence emerging at school and on campus, these issues are now in the cross hairs of advertising executives and educators.

"Unfortunately, it's often easier for a teacher not to confront a student, and some parents are neglectful about their children's progress in school," says Paul Kurnit, president of Griffin Bacal Inc., an advertising agency in New York specializing in youth and family. "There's a need for social marketing to step up to the plate."

And it is. In coming weeks, a new national television ad campaign will try to curb cheating that some experts say is rampant in the nation's junior highs and high schools.

Also, this month a big campaign sponsored by 113 colleges and universities placed full-page ads in national newspapers. The ads depicted a beer bottle labeled "Binge Beer" - a metaphor for the mayhem that drunkenness is causing on college campuses across the United States.

"Who says falling off a balcony is such a bad thing," reads the anti-drunkenness ad. "And what's an occasional riot? Or even a little assault between friends? Thousands of college students across the country have already discovered "Binge Beer." And this year, thousands more will try it.

"Don't think that's a good idea?" the ad continues. "Neither do we, but we need your help in convincing our students of the dangers."

The pitch is directed at parents of high school students - rather than those in college today.

Colleges join forces

Graham Spanier is president of Pennsylvania State University in University Park. He came up with the idea for colleges to band together to publicize the problem, and says parents need to understand that "an 18-year-old who arrives at a university today may already be an experienced binge drinker."

To be sure, Penn State and other schools involved in the campaign are supplementing that message with campus-based media campaigns and expanded social activities.

Yet some observers warn of pitfalls the campaign could face.

"They're going to have a huge uphill battle to register a change in student attitude," says Steve Dnistrian, executive vice president of Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a New York-based nonprofit coalition.

"The alcohol industry spends $1 billion a year on marketing and promotion," he says. "If that's your competition, and if you want to persuade one teen and his parents that binge drinking is a bad idea ... you've got to figure out a way to outspend the competition."

Students echo that feeling. "Their intentions are good, but I don't know how effective it will be," says David Hoe, a junior majoring in marketing at Penn State. "A lot of students are already pretty educated about alcohol. You'd have to be pretty naive to think consuming large amounts of alcohol is not bad for you. They know, but they do it anyway."

Who, me cheat?

When it comes to cheating, surveys show 80 percent of the country's best students cheated to get to the top of their class - setting off alarm bells at the Princeton, N.J.-based Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT.

Mr. Kurnit's agency produced a campaign pro bono for the nonprofit Ad Council and partner ETS. It is based on his research showing kids don't approve of cheating in sports. So his pitch tries to persuade students that cheating in school, like cheating in sports, "is a personal foul."

As kids watch TV in the next few weeks, they will see ads with students at desks taking a test - and a sports announcer's voice-over calling the play-by-play.

"And they're off! They're really into it," says the voice. "Jenny takes the lead to page 2. Uh, oh. Johnny's eyes are...." -a referee's whistle sounds - "Off sides!" But Johnny's eyes, which were sliding toward his neighbor's test - suddenly veer back to his own work. "He's back on sides. Good call on Johnny's part," the referee says. Tag line: "Get it into your head. Next time you're tempted to cheat, don't. Do the work. Take the test. Listen to the ref in your head. Cheating is a personal foul."

Kurnit describes the referee metaphor as "an extension of the kids' own conscience. It's not only empowering for kids, but for teachers and parents alike and doesn't subsume their role."

Some parents are less sure. "I think an advertising campaign to tell kids that cheating or violence is [bad] is a waste of time," says Roger Brand, an Atlanta parent who with his wife is raising three young children. "If this message does not come from a source they have respect for, they will think it is a joke."

Nedra Weinreich, who runs her own social-marketing company in Greenbrae, Calif., warns that "we need to make sure it's always done in an ethical way."

Advertising experts say binge drinking and cheating are just the first targets. New ad pitches aimed at controlling violent attitudes among students will soon join antismoking and antidrug social-marketing messages in the media stream. And to some, anything that helps is good.

"I have a hard time visualizing how a 30-second segment is going to do a lot about cheating," says Anne Robertson, coordinator of the National Parent Information Network at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "But maybe it's enough to draw attention to the issue - and maybe if parents are sitting with children and watching it, it will cause them to discuss it."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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