Can communication strategy lessons be distilled from alcohol marketing problems?
by Alan Gill
Alcohol advertising is beginning to receive a lot of attention from governments. It seems as though every week there is an article in our major newspapers detailing the effect of excessive alcohol consumption on our body. Most health pundits reckon the problem could be solved by putting restrictions on the advertisements that beverage manufacturers produce.
Petra Meier suggests in a paper published last year in the journal “Addiction” that marketing researchers have got it all wrong when it comes to predicting the effects of advertising restrictions. These marketing researchers are trying to find evidence that the British government’s policies are working and that excessive alcohol consumption is on the decline. The problem with their techniques, Meier argues, is that the researchers don’t understand how current and new marketing messages are processed by the brain, nor do they understand the timescales that they work on and the magnitude of the response they illicit. This can represent a significant hurdle if a new policy is introduced but in evaluating its efficacy, the timescale of the study is too short for the policy changes to have any effect. This result would paint a picture of bad policy rather than bad evaluation.
The answer, according to Meier, is researching the effects that are expected to be observed from advertising changes and documenting their development. That would mean assessing how they are processed – consciously or subconsciously – and whether it is trying to encourage a sale or something more like behaviour change. The timescales for these different results are quite varied and depend a lot on what the marketing companies do to get around advertising restrictions, so there are a lot of unknowns. What is important is understanding how these messages are understood by viewers and how long it can take for those messages to translate into actions. For example, a policy might discourage film makers from portraying epic drinking sessions as social events, though it might take years before this subconscious message seeps in. Studying its effects after 3 months would be somewhat useless.
If you remove the alcohol marketing side of this article, you start to see some really good suggestions for evaluating communication strategies. Doing some research to find out how much people know about an issue after the implementation of your strategy is great, but it won’t mean anything unless you have something to compare it to. That part is easy enough as there’s no sense creating a strategy to change community behaviour if it doesn’t need tchanging, or even if you don’t know how much to change it. The difficult part is understanding how long it will take for the message to sink in and how long the evaluation period should be. After all, there’s no point evaluating your strategy if you’re not going to give it the best chance of showing positive results.
How important do you see evaluation to be? How much emphasis would you put on it as part of your communication strategy?
Reference: Meier, P 2010, ‘Alcohol marketing research: the need for a new agenda’, Addiction, 106, pp 466-471