Developing and Testing Alcohol and Pregnancy Campaign Messages: Exploring What Works with Women


An article published by Kathryn E. France and colleagues in the journal Substance Use & Misuse looks at the development and testing of advertising concepts for a campaign to promote abstinence from alcohol during pregnancy in Western Australia.

France and colleagues conducted a series of nine focus groups with women on beliefs and attitudes on alcohol use during pregnancy and motivations for behavior change and gathered feedback on four television concepts that used different types of messaging.

Some of the key findings from the study include:

  • Women’s motivations for stopping alcohol use during pregnancy included, but were much broader than, a desire to protect their baby from harm
  • Messages could either aim to emphasize that the negative outcomes, experiences, or feelings could be reduced or avoided and/or that positiveoutcomes, experiences, or feelings could be obtained or maintained if women abstained from alcohol during pregnancy (e.g., wanting to minimize a generalized fear that something could go wrong or wanting to believe they were in control and doing the best that they could to support the health of the pregnancy and the baby)
  • In this particular study, the most effective message/tested ad concept was one that appealed to negative emotions, suggesting that fear appeals can be more effective than positive messages
  • It might be useful for campaigns to also include positive messages (e.g., a display of social support and acceptance for a pregnant women) abstaining from alcohol in conjunction with a threat-based message
  • Study participants also appreciated specific strategies for avoiding alcohol during social situations.

This study supports previous research showing that fear-based messaging can be effective if the behaviour that is being promoted is achievable by the viewer, i.e., women who drink alcohol in general. Fear or threat-based messaging promoting abstinence is not helpful for women with alcohol problems.

The authors also comment on the importance of being honest and factual about the limits of research on alcohol during pregnancy. Most women believed the public health guidelines that alcohol should be avoided during pregnancy, but questioned whether light drinking was a major concern.

“Credibility of the message was enhanced by acknowledging uncertainty about the risk to the fetus with low to moderate alcohol exposure. Rather than undermine an abstinence-based message, this information served as a clear rationale for the recommendation. An honest and scientific framing of the message and delivery by an expert source were also shown to minimize counterargument and strengthen the message’s persuasiveness.” (p. 8)

For more on this topic, see earlier posts:


France, K. (2011). Creating Persuasive Messages to Promote Abstinence from Alcohol During Pregnancy. Theses: Doctorates and Masters. Paper 413.

France, K., Donovan, R.J., Henley, N., Bower, C., Elliott, E.J. et al. (2013). Promoting Abstinence From Alcohol During Pregnancy: Implications From Formative Research. Substance Use & Misuse, Early Online:1–13.  DOI: 10.3109/10826084.2013.800118

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