Almost under the influence: what makes an anti-drug campaign succeed?

Almost under the influence: what makes an anti-drug campaign succeed?

CultureSeptember 26, 2017 By Isabelle Kohn

By and large, anti-drug PSAs don’t work. Sometimes, they even encourage drug use, which you don’t need to be high to find funny. In fact, in a 2008 study by author S. Shyam Sundar, participants who were primed with anti-drug PSAs were more curious about using drugs than those that hadn’t seen the PSAs. Sundar concluded that because anti-drug ads made the viewer think more about drugs, it could also lead them to believe drug use is more prevalent than it really is. “These results should be seriously considered, as it has been consistently recognized in psychological research that curiosity is one of the most potent motivational forces for human behavior,” the paper warns. Plus, a separate study from the University of Zurich points out, both ad agencies and the government seem to consistently overlook the fact that drug and alcohol users can’t be “scared straight.” They already know way more about the risks of drugs and the habits of their users than people who refrain from imbibing, and what’s more, the risks just don’t seem plausible.There’s a clear disconnect between advertisers and their audience here, and it’s a costly one at that; the U.S. government has spent over $1 billion on drug PSAs since 1988.


Yet, a (very) small amount of anti-drug campaigns have actually been successful at decreasing drug use among their target populations. Why? Because, you inquisitive child, they use entirely different strategies than a vast majority of the government’s other counter-drug efforts. Whereas most of them rely on fear tactics to scare people away from drug use, the successful ones appeal to something different entirely. Let’s discuss.

Above the Influence
Tactic: Avoid the subject entirely.
Target: Teens.
Fail or Nah? Definite success.

No other U.S. anti-drug campaign has been more successful than 2005’s “Above the Influence” — an interesting fact considering the strategy involved almost zero mention of drugs at all. Taking the advice of researchers, the campaign aimed to find out what kids who don’t use drugs do, and advertise those activities instead. This was primarily because of the aforementioned study by Wagner et al. that talking about drugs actually piqued kid’s interest in trying them. But by avoiding the notion of narcotics, they bypass that little problem altogether. Instead of scaring teens, these ads appealed to the ones who wanted to be independent and self-sufficient, two things that pretty much every zit-faced prom wallflower wants in order to prove to their dads they’re old enough for a Chevrolet Astro. For example, one television ad in the campaign states that “getting messed up is just another way of leaving yourself behind.” Ooh, burn. A 2011 study on “Above the Influence” found only 8 percent of teenagers who were familiar with the campaign started smoking pot, versus 12 percent of teenagers who hadn’t seen it … and while the small gap may not seem like that big of an effect, consider the fact no anti-drug campaigns had ever had that high of a success rate since the inception of the NYADMC.

Meth: Not Even Once
Tactic: Appeal to disgust.
Target: Everyone and their mothers.
Fail or Nah? Nah; it was pretty cool at making people less meth-y.

Remember how everyone in “Breaking Bad” was on meth? Well, the ones who weren’t probably saw The Meth Project’s “Meth: Not Even Once” campaign. This one’s interesting because where other campaigns failed at using fear, this one used a derivative of fear to achieve results: disgust. And if you’ve seen the ads, you know what we mean. Sweaty, scab-covered, gray lizard people with no teeth offer themselves up to prostitution, nearly murder their mothers and tear off their own skin, effectively ruining manicures and resigning themselves to the “unfuckable” corner of the human race. This gave the message, not that meth could be dangerous, but that it would endanger morals and looks. A new study published in the Journal of Marketing Research validating the effectiveness of the campaign found, while ads that relied on fear alone to convey their message did not lead to immediate changes in attitudes or behavior, ads that incorporated disgust did. The study concludes, “It was only the disgust-inducing fear appeal that significantly reduced future drug use, making it more effective in terms of persuasion and compliance.” As such, since the inception of the program in 2005, there has been a 72% relative decrease in adult methamphetamine use, and a 62% relative decline in methamphetamine-related crimes. In 2010, the Meth Project was even named the third most effective philanthropy in the world. Walter White would be pissed.

D.A.R.E.
Tactic: Use law enforcement to scare kids into help children resist drugs.
Target: Kids and young adults.
Fail or Nah? Fail.

D.A.R.E. is undoubtedly the most widely publicized teen substance abuse prevention program in this here land. Created in 1983 by the Los Angeles Police Department, D.A.R.E. asks uniformed police officers to go into schools to scare students about the dangers of drug use — the idea being the fear of the penal system is enough to keep kids from freebasing horse sedative. And while it’s immensely popular (it’s been in 75 percent of U.S. school districts), it’s also immensely ineffective for a few reasons. First, a policemen that you’ll never see again telling you to stay away from drugs is … not a thing. Secondly, bringing students flashy, uniformed police officers (sometimes with a gun) driving seized drug vehicles, and handing out free goodies like buttons, t-shirts and awards to capture kids’ interest isn’t really going to keep them from heroin-ing in the bathroom. In fact, that draws an undue amount of attention to taboo activity, creating the “forbidden fruit” effect that actually increases drugs’ appeal. In fact, one study even found that D.A.R.E. students used drugs slightly more than kids who didn’t attend the lectures. The campaign also sends a mixed message by lumping all drugs together, without comparing relative risks; in D.A.R.E. terms, weed is meth and meth is tobacco. No sense made there. Lastly, it propagates harmful, inaccurate stereotypes. Students are taught that once they try drugs they are losers who will become addicts and ruin their lives, something we all know is false. Savvy youngin’s compare notes and experiences outside of school, which often leads to ridicule of the program, and as a result they learn to distrust drug education. There’s a reason hipsters wear ironic vintage D.A.R.E shirts to the kombucha brew; it’s a joke, much like pennies and the Biebs. Unsurprisingly, these factors lead to a meta-analysis of 20 D.A.R.E. programs by statisticians Wei Pan and Haiyan Bae that concludes teens enrolled in the program were just as likely to use drugs as were those who received no intervention … and all they got was a stupid shirt.

Don’t Be a Lab Rat
Tactic: Compare Colorado’s weed users to lab rats.
Target: Colorado young adults.
Fail or Nah? A bigger failure than the Broncos during the playoffs.

This one hits close to home because it was conceived, executed and endlessly ridiculed all right here in Colorado. The campaign — which is aimed at convincing teenagers not to smoke weed — was faced with the difficult task of presenting teens with accurate information about weed’s effect on teen brains without the gimmicks that would turn them off. So ... they decided on the most gimmicky thing they could find: human-sized rat cages that suggests pot smokers are “lab rats” who allow marijuana businesses and dealers to freely experiment on their bodies.The cages, replete with hamster feeders, were placed on Boulder Valley school grounds, as well as at certain Red Rocks shows and bus stations, then adorned with signs warning marijuana could harm the developing brain. The plan crashed, however, when Boulder residents began to worry the campaign was possibly racist and contained disputed facts about weed’s effect on teen brains. We’re sure the fact the campaign was funded by $2 million from pharmaceutical companies had something to do with it as well. Eventually, the City of Boulder decided to call off the campaign proving no matter how much someone might think otherwise, giant cages and hamster feeders won’t dissuade teenagers from smoking weed. Negative or pessimistic messages such as the Lab Rat one are harder to spread than Chlamydia at a monastery … just more proof fear does a whole lot of nothing.

This is Your Brain on Drugs
Tactic: Convince people that drugs fry your brain like delicious, delicious eggs.
Target: Anyone with eyes.
Fail or Nah? Failed at everything except making you hungry.

“This Is Your Brain on Drugs” was an iconic, large-scale US anti-narcotics campaign by Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) that launched in 1987. The most memorable component of the campaign, unequivocally, was the televised PSA that shows a man in a shitty apartment who asks if there is anyone out there who still doesn’t understand the dangers of drug abuse. He then holds up an egg and says, “This is your brain,” before motioning to a frying pan and adding, “This is drugs.” He then cracks open the egg, fries the contents, and says, “This is your brain on drugs.” Finally he looks up at the camera and asks, “Any questions?” It was supposed to be scary, but its overzealous dialogue and hilariously dramatic tone painted a different picture, one we’re sure you’re envisioning if you’ve seen it. For its entertainment value, the campaign was tremendously popular; TV Guide named the commercial one of the top 100 ads of all time and Entertainment Weekly named it the 8th best commercial ever. But in terms of its effectiveness? Basically, it scared the shit out of children … but just made young adults and grown-ass people die laughing. In fact, despite its wide reach and the millions of dollars of funding that went into it, no studies found the campaign itself had any influence on drug usage rates. The biggest impact it had, incidentally, was on people’s opinions of eggs. The American Egg Board had an issue with the PSA and worried young children might misinterpret the TV message and associate eggs with drugs. Proof that, if you’re going to use fear to discourage drug use, at least talk about something scary … not something breakfast-related.