Below is an abstract of a study by Jessop & Wade at the Department of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, UK. Translated from professor-ese, it says that people drink more after seeing ads that warn them of the dangers of drinking:
OBJECTIVES: The aim of the current research was to test the terror management theory-derived hypotheses that exposure to information about the mortality-related risks of binge drinking would make mortality salient (Study 1) and, hence, exacerbate willingness to binge drink amongst those who perceive this behaviour to benefit self-esteem (Study 2). STUDY 1: Participants (N=97) were allocated to one of five experimental conditions. Results confirmed that exposure to information about the mortality-related risks of binge drinking made mortality salient. STUDY 2: Participants (N=296) were allocated to one of three experimental conditions. Exposure to mortality-related information about the risks of binge drinking was found to result in greater willingness to binge drink among (i) binge drinkers and (ii) non-binge drinkers who perceived this behaviour to benefit self-esteem. There was no evidence, however, that exposure to such information influenced binge drinking over the following week. CONCLUSIONS: Research findings suggest that mortality-related health promotion campaigns might inadvertently make mortality salient, and hence precipitate the very behaviours which they aim to deter among some recipients.
The effect is not limited to booze. The popular school program DARE, for example, which warns kids about alcohol and drugs appears to be counterproductive when it has any effect at all (see http://www.alcoholfacts.org/DARE.html ). So too with cigarettes. Despite ever more graphic anti-tobacco ads, draconian taxes on cigarettes, and severe social ostracism of smokers, the percentage of smokers in the US actually has been increasing since it bottomed out a decade ago.
So why do we badger each other beyond the point where it is any use? If it’s not about the effect on the badgered, it must be about the effect on the badgerers. We feel better about ourselves when we think we are doing something to ‘help” those poor people. (And doesn’t it feel great not to be one of them?) We keep waging a hugely destructive and obviously hopeless drug war for the same reason. We feel better doing the wrong thing than nothing. Maybe it shouldn't be about us.
Next in importance to knowing when to act is knowing when to stop.