Exclusive Web Interview: Dissecting Alcohol Campaigns

In today’s digitally connected world, social media has become a powerful tool for communication and influence. With the pervasive reach of these platforms, it begs the question: Can social media campaigns effectively address public health issues, such as alcohol consumption and its related harms? We recently had the opportunity to ask some questions from Jih-Cheng Yeh from Boston University School of Public Health, the lead author of an insightful study titled “Social Media Campaigns to Influence Alcohol Consumption and Related Harms, Attitudes, and Awareness: A Systematic Review.” The study aims to evaluate the efficacy of social media campaigns in influencing people’s drinking habits, attitudes towards alcohol, and awareness of its consequences.

Yeh and his team conducted an exhaustive search of twelve databases, analyzing over 6,000 unique studies worldwide. Despite the vast number of studies reviewed, only eleven met their inclusion criteria. These studies spanned 17 countries and targeted a wide range of populations, revealing the global scale of alcohol-related issues and the potential reach of social media campaigns.

The results of the systematic review, however, were far from conclusive. While some campaigns successfully led to changes in behaviour, such as reduced drinking among college students, others showed no discernible impact. Furthermore, only one study measured changes in attitudes, reporting increased policy support for key alcohol policies. Despite the mixed results, all of the studies noted increased awareness of the campaigns, suggesting that social media does have the potential to make an impact.

In our interview, Jih-Cheng Yeh delves deeper into the nuances of these findings and offers insight into the potential of social media as a tool for public health intervention. As the world grapples with the consequences of alcohol consumption, the urgent need for rigorous evaluation of social media’s utility in addressing these issues cannot be overstated.

Lauri Beekmann: Based on the studies analyzed in your systematic review, what specific factors or strategies in social media campaigns seemed to contribute to the success or failure of influencing alcohol consumption and related harms?

Jih-Cheng Yeh: Most of the studies in the systematic review combined social media campaigns (e.g., posts on Facebook or Instagram) with stories in the news media (e.g., digital, print, or radio) which allowed for widespread dissemination. However, this also limits our understanding of the isolated role of social media. A strength of social media is engagement, which we did not see beyond the basic impressions, reach, clicks, and likes. I believe social media campaigns that encourage interactivity, such as through user-generated content, polls, or contests, can increase engagement and promote behavior change.

In the studies where significant reductions in college student drinking were observed, what key components or tactics were employed in the social media campaigns that led to these positive outcomes?

Social norming messages or social norms theory were employed in studies targeting college student populations. The majority of these studies were described as social marketing campaigns conducted on college campuses and produced mixed findings. The specific components and/or messages were not described in detail in these studies.

How do the results of your systematic review compare to traditional media campaigns’ effectiveness in influencing alcohol consumption and related attitudes, harms, and awareness?

Systematic reviews analyzing the effectiveness of traditional media campaigns have suggested that traditional methods may be effective in reducing alcohol-related harms (Elder et al., 2004 and Young et al., 2018), but not alcohol consumption (Wakefield et al., 2010 and Young et al., 2018). The effectiveness of social media campaigns in influencing alcohol consumption and related attitudes, harms, and awareness is still unclear at this stage because there just isn’t a lot of published literature evaluating these effects. The potential is there for social media campaigns but current evidence suggests that using social media as a tool to raise awareness and promote change in alcohol consumption is still relatively nascent.

What are some of the challenges in measuring the effectiveness of social media campaigns targeting alcohol consumption, and how can future research overcome these limitations to provide more precise insights?

From the social media perspective, challenges include 1) difficulties in isolating the effects of social media campaign(s); 2) limited access to data beyond the basic likes and clicks; 3) limited resources for evaluation since the social media campaigns we evaluated were all small-scale and have limited budgets for evaluation which limited the amount of data that were collected; and 4) lack of standardized metrics which makes it challenging to compare the effectiveness of different campaigns.

Among the studies reviewed, were there any demographic or regional trends that influenced the effectiveness of social media campaigns in altering alcohol consumption and related behaviours?

We did not observe any demographic or regional trends that influenced the effectiveness of social media campaigns in influencing alcohol consumption and related behaviors. Of the studies reviewed, four campaigns targeted general adult populations, three targeted college students, one targeted young adults, and two targeted women. Of these 10 studies, only three studies were considered “true” social media campaigns that did not use traditional media.

Based on your findings and conclusions, what recommendations would you give to public health organizations or policymakers planning to use social media campaigns to address alcohol consumption and related problems?

Based on our findings, we’d encourage public health organizations and/or policymakers to try as many things as possible, to as much as possible use evidence-based theory in their efforts to design and implement social media campaigns (current evidence of internet interventions suggests that some kind of behavioral change theory has the greatest impact), and to rigorously evaluate them – not just for whether people “liked” the campaign (or how well the campaign was received) but looking at metrics that measure alcohol consumption and related harms. This will allow people to contribute to all of our knowledge about the potential impact of such campaigns.

Similarly, it’s also important to tailor social media campaigns to specific target audiences. I don’t just mean (although very true) that different subpopulations have unique attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors regarding alcohol consumption so campaigns should be designed to resonate with specific populations and their needs. I also mean that different subpopulations may engage with social media differently. For example, using TikTok or Instagram may be better in terms of reaching and engaging with younger populations, while Facebook can be used to create online communities and receive social support for other subpopulations. Different platforms may facilitate different behavior change processes and this remains largely unexplored. I also think it may be interesting to collaborate or partner with influencers/celebrities (which have been used in anti-tobacco campaigns) to promote social media campaigns to reduce alcohol consumption and related harms as they can reach a wide audience and potentially increase the campaign’s effectiveness.

Jih-Cheng (Jack) Yeh is an Integrated Care for Addiction, HIV and HCV Research and Education (ICAHRE) T32 Predoctoral Fellow. He is passionate about addressing health disparities among vulnerable populations such as underrepresented racial/ethnic and sexual/gender minorities at a population level. His research interests include social determinants of health and related inequalities surrounding health outcomes related to alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and opioids.

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