SPH Joins TV Alcohol Program

Innovative Media Campaign Aimed Against Drunk Driving

The Harvard School of Public Health (SPH) has joined hands with Hollywood studios, television networks and advertising agencies to launch the Harvard Alcohol Project, an innovative media campaign against drunk driving.

William DeJong, research director of SPH's Center for Health Communication, which is sponsoring the project, said the center hoped "to affect a fundamental shift in social norms, to effect a schism in people's minds between the act of drinking and the act of driving."

The campaign's director, Assistant Dean for Public and Community Affairs Jay A. Winsten, worked with the Center for Health Communication to enlist the support of 13 Hollywood television studios. These studios, which include Columbia Pictures Television, Walt Disney Studios, and Paramount Pictures Television, will encourage their writers to create dialogue suggesting that drivers should not drink.

"Hollywood is in a powerful position to reinforce these emerging trends by writing occasional script lines that model a new norm of social behavior," Winsten said in a prepared statement.

"The shift from previous practice can be depicted in a line or two of dialogue as a person arrives at a party (`No thanks, I'm driving'), or as a couple discusses `Who's driving tonight?' or as several young people decide to share a taxi. Our hypothesis is that the impact will be gradual, incremental and ultimately far-reaching," he said.

Together, the studios involved produce 70 percent of all entertainment programming on prime-time network television. This combined effort marks perhaps the first attempt by this industry to use their influence with the public in such a manner.

Recent statistics seem to indicate that the American public will be receptive to the project's message, Winsten reported. According to Winsten, a Gallup poll conducted for Harvard found that 78 percent of adults said they would be willing to be the designated driver from time to time.

Although SPH will monitor the success of the project, it will not conduct "a full-blown investigation," DeJong said. With the cooperation of certain advertising agencies and polling organizations, project researchers will look for a change in attitudes about driving drunk.

"There's a real debate in the public health community about the effectiveness of mass media campaigns," DeJong said. He said critics of such campaigns often look for immediate behavioral changes rather than focusing on future benefits. "Obviously, the mass media had a major role to play in shifting social norms from smoking to non-smoking. You really need to take a long-term view," DeJong said.

The Center for Health Communication is "looking for a long-term relationship with the networks and the studios," said DeJong, who called the present effort a "pilot project." He said future collaborations may address such issues as children's nutrition and automobile seat belt use.