Infuriated, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has counterattacked. MADD wants parents to question the safety of colleges participating in the Amethyst Initiative when considering their child's academic future.
Now, the Century Council, the liquor industry group dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking, is asking college students to devise a solution. It hopes to kick off a $10 million campaign "that will help combat dangerous over-consumption of alcohol by college students," as part of the American Advertising Federation's 2009 National Student Advertising Competition.
This will be the first time in its 36-year history that the AAF competition is featuring a public service advertising campaign focused on behavior change. (It's only open to AAF's college chapters.)
AAF President and CEO James Edmund Datri applauds the empowerment angle, calling binge drinking--defined as consuming five or more drinks in two hours by men and four or more in two hours for women--"a dangerous trend on our country's campuses." Some 40% of college students reported binge drinking in the past year, according to the Monitoring the Future study, funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which surveys the behaviors, attitudes and values of college students and young adults. An Associated Press study of federal records from 1999 through 2005 found that 157 college-age people, 18 to 23, died from drinking themselves to death.
It's about time somebody asked the students about an issue that directly involves them. We tell them to vote when they are 18. We ship them off to war at 18. But when it comes to alcohol, we eliminate them from the discussion. We've also given the states little say in the matter. That's because states with a drinking age lower than 21 can be denied federal highway transportation funds. The Amethyst Initiative is pressuring lawmakers to consider whether the 21 drinking age is effective public policy, or whether it's driving drinking underground and fueling the binge-drinking problem.
Here's why some of the college presidents signed onto Amethyst Initiative. (The name is taken from ancient Greece, where the gemstone was believed to ward off drunkenness.) "My 35 years in higher education and my 30+ years as a parent to three sons convinced me that the 21-year-old drinking age is hypocritical, ineffective, guilt-inducing and counterproductive," says Donald R. Eastman III, president of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. "It is a form of mini-prohibition and needs to be replaced with education and a focus on the value of moderation, not intolerance."
When it comes to young adults, prohibition and intolerance are words that strike fear in the heart of any savvy cause marketer. People who understand how to change behavior know that the forbidden fruit approach for teens is a dead end.
Remember Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign? That didn't work, Richard Earle points out in his book "The Art of Cause Marketing: How to Use Advertising to Change Personal Behavior and Public Policy," because telling teenagers in treatment for drug abuse to just say no is ridiculous. Asking teens who have already experimented with drugs to just say no is equally foolish. Earle's conclusion: The anti-behavior approach doesn't work.
Cynics would say that the Century Council, supported by money from liquor giants such as Bacardi, Brown-Forman and Diageo, is only interested in boosting industry profits; lowering the drinking age would hasten that end. That reasoning is shortsighted. The campaign's goal isn't to encourage consumption, but to ask students how we can solve a serious problem that impacts them.
"The behavior is taking place, and the best thing we can do is reduce the harm," says Ralph Blackman, the Century Council's president. Blackman says having the target audience--college students--work on a campaign is what makes the AAF student competition so attractive. He wants to see what they can create--particularly using tactics such as guerrilla marketing and social networks.
Having a national debate about the drinking age is part of a viable democratic process. Asking college students to research the causes behind binge drinking, then develop a campaign to combat the behavior, should enhance the project's credibility.
In the last two years, the AAF's student competition featured Coca-Cola and AOL as clients. Let's hope we see more socially responsible efforts in the competition's future. It underscores a valuable industry goal: Advertising does more than just push products and services. It's key to changing behavior. Thanks to public service advertising, most of us wear seat belts when driving.
Wendy Melillo is a contributing writer to MediaPost and an assistant professor in the School of Communication at American University.