Saying no to propaganda

Critics say the government's new anti-drug campaign is reactionary and moralistic. Worse, it may not even work.

By Janelle Brown

Published March 12, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

This is your brain on drugs. Just say no. What's your anti-drug? D.A.R.E. to keep kids off drugs.

Billions have been spent on catchy slogans and flashy branding to make the rejection of drugs as appealing as the consumption of candy. But have the dollars devoted to educating, cajoling, pleading and frightening us away from drugs done the job? Even those who make the ads admit a limited return on this investment: Teenagers see anti-drug ads 2.7 times a week, according to the government's numbers. And yet 54 percent of all teens try drugs before they graduate from high school.

Propaganda from the War on Drugs was supplanted by dispatches from the War on Terrorism during the waning months of 2001. But last month, the Office for National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) found a way to marry the two battles in its latest anti-drug campaign, which equates drug use with financing terrorists. At the same time, the Partnership for a Drug Free America debuted its own ambitious anti-Ecstasy crusade entitled "Ecstasy: Where's the Love?"

This new offensive is fueled by serious money. Congress has allocated more than $1 billion for anti-drug advertising over the next five years; $180 million will be spent this year alone, and that's merely the quantifiable sums (uncountable sums have been donated in free airtime and ad creation). Although advertising demands only a tiny portion of the government's total anti-drug budget, it's considered the cornerstone of the War on Drugs -- even though there is little proof that anti-drug ads really work. In fact, there is evidence that some anti-drug ads don't work and that others even (unintentionally) encourage drug use, according to the newest research.

But the most vocal critics of the government's new anti-drug advertising haven't focused on the questionable efficacy of the ads. Instead, they have accused the Bush administration of using the War on Drugs to push a broad and moralistic political agenda, while overlooking community-based approaches to drug abuse. Rather than offering real solutions, they claim, the drug-terror campaign simply fans drug hysteria in the course of painting a new administration's face and philosophy on the War on Drugs.

Can an ad campaign that ostensibly seeks to warn teens away from drugs serve as political propaganda? Perhaps, if you subscribe to the idea that good advertising can sell anything to anyone. Would this matter if the ads in question, regardless of their political agenda, managed to make a dent in drug abuse? Maybe not. But so far, that appears to be the problem. Advertising can be used to create habits and sustain them, but, when it comes to drugs, it isn't necessarily an effective tool in snuffing them out.

Anti-drug propaganda, both government-funded and privately sponsored, has existed since the 1930s (think "Reefer Madness"), but it wasn't until cocaine -- and then, crack cocaine -- became a national epidemic that federally funded anti-drug advertising as we know it was born. Nancy Reagan launched the memorable "Just Say No" campaign in the 1980s, at the height of a cocaine "epidemic" that was galvanizing concerned parents and authorities; her "Just Say No" advertisements, bumper stickers and T-shirts were ubiquitous. Then, in 1987, a collective of advertising professionals created the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, hoping to do pro-bono work as a private contribution to the War on Drugs, and began peppering the airwaves with their own anti-drug advertising. The goal was to "decrease demand for drugs by changing societal attitudes which support, tolerate or condone drug use." The idea was to condition kids to reject drugs, using the same branding and market-testing principles that sell Crest toothpaste and Nike sneakers.

According to the 1979 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 34.4 percent of all American high school seniors reported having tried drugs, and 18.5 percent said they had done so in the last 30 days. By 1992, that figure had dropped to 17.9 percent and 6.6 percent, respectively. Believers in the power of anti-drug advertising invariably point to this impressive reduction in drug use as evidence that campaigns like "Just Say No" and those created by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America actually work. Then, drug use began climbing again in the 1990s, as evidenced by the statistics: By 1997, 11.4 percent of all high schoolers had done drugs in the last 30 days. The rise coincided with the waning of the anti-drug advertising movement, a parallel that proponents of the campaign also used as "proof" of its efficacy when lobbying Congress for new funds.

But as much as the precipitous fall and rise of drug use in the 1980s and 1990s looked like evidence of successful anti-drug advertising, some researchers are wary of directly connecting the two. Robert Hornik, a professor of communication at the Annenberg School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the researcher behind a new study of the effectiveness of anti-drug ads, says that there's a "possible correlation" between the ads and statistics of this period, but the drop in drug use could have had as much to do with any number of factors: youth disillusionment with drugs, as cocaine wreaked its havoc and ran its course; plus a general nationwide furor that kept drugs in the public eye.

"There was much more noise in the environment about drugs during that period," Hornik says. "So the number of exposures someone would have had [to messages] about drugs was much more substantial."

When drug use again began to rise in the late 1990s, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the ONDCP renewed their efforts: They began working together, and in 1998 they launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Congress apportioned some $1 billion to pay for advertising space for the ads produced by the two groups, and an anti-drug media blitz flooded the nation with an assortment of anti-drug advertisements. Despite the drop in drug use, the "Just Say No" message was declared irrelevant: It was the message of a former administration, and had long been eviscerated by both press and youth as the simplistic message of an exceedingly unhip First Lady. The government shifted gears and came up with a new series of approaches.

Although the ONDCP has been releasing its own anti-drug ad campaigns since the 1980s, the new National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign fomented a more regimented strategy for that group. Over the last four years, the ONDCP has released a series of "platform" advertisements: the "Negative Consequences" platform, for example, includes ads that depict kids getting in trouble when they do drugs; the "Resistance Skills" platform includes tips on how to say "no" to peer pressure; the "Parenting Skills" platform instructs parents to talk to their kids about drugs; the "Norm Education" platform sends the message that "the coolest kids don't do drugs." The main theme of the ONDCP's campaign has been "The Anti-Drug" brand, which extends across several platforms and instructs kids to find their own "anti-drug" (such as music or sports or a pet) to keep them straight.

When Bush appointed John Walters drug czar in May of last year, drug war watchdog groups anticipated the beginning of another guns-and-jails era for the ONDCP, with a greater emphasis on military and criminal punishments. Walters, a drug "hawk" who had served under William Bennett, was well known for his moral condemnation of drug use and his criticism of Clinton's drug war techniques. Although the War on Drugs dropped from the national agenda in the days after Sept. 11, it came rushing back in January with the ONDCP's first effort under Walters -- an ad campaign that managed to conflate moralism and nationalism with a heavy dose of guilt, and which immediately generated a flurry of both positive and outraged media coverage.

The new ads essentially warn drug users that when they buy drugs, they are funding terrorism. In the ads, a series of shrugging teens confess their culpability in a variety of ugly terrorist activities: "I helped a bomber get a fake passport. All the kids do it." The tagline: "Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs, you might too." The terror-drug ads seemed to usher in a new philosophy of social guilt: Buying drugs isn't just bad for your body and your future, but it also makes you personally liable for politically motivated mayhem.

The drug-terrorism ads were "a definite departure" from the ONDCP's softer find-your-anti-drug campaigns, which sought to inspire or distract kids tempted by drugs, says ONDCP spokesperson Jennifer De Vallance. The new ads, she says, are representative of a new philosophy in the War on Drugs: "Forever people have said you shouldn't use drugs because it's bad for your body, bad for your brain, bad for your parents," says de Vallance. "These ads take a broader perspective.

"Talking to teenagers is like talking to Olympian gods," she adds, "because they see themselves as invulnerable. But they do appreciate the concept of social responsibility."

Bush personally described the ONDCP's strategy as ushering in a new "period of personal responsibility" -- moving away from "if it feels good do it" to an age of "morals." Explained the Office of National Drug Control Policy in a news release: "Americans must set norms that reaffirm the values of responsibility and good citizenship while dismissing the notion that drug use is consistent with individual freedom."

But critics have claimed that the ads are merely heavy-handed propaganda for the Bush administration's conservative agenda: By associating the War on Drugs with the popular War on Terrorism, they say, the administration hopes to curry support for its more militaristic approach to battling drug use.

"There's a new troika driving U.S. drug policy -- Attorney General John Ashcroft, Asa Hutchinson [head of the DEA] and Walters," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug war reform and harm-reduction approaches to drug abuse. "All three of them are interested in drug policy primarily in terms of advancing a more reactionary political agenda in the U.S. They are making an effort to resuscitate the Bennett-politicized drug war of a decade ago."

(In the weeks following the release of the ads, Walters also announced a new plan to reduce national drug use by 25 percent, relying heavily on interdiction, criminal justice, and military approaches, with additional dollars going to specialized treatment programs. Meanwhile, the DEA staged two high-profile drug busts, including one on the controversial legalized cannabis clubs of San Francisco.)

Even those in the advertising industry concur that the drug-terror advertisements appear to have as much to do with maintaining support for the government's efforts as they do with actually reducing drug use. If the administration associates policy of any kind with the popular War on Terrorism, say veterans of the advertising industry, it is likely to maintain high approval ratings. As Mark DiMassimo, C.E.O. of DiMassimo Advertising (and the creator of a series of Ecstasy ads for the Partnership for a Drug Free America), puts it, "This is wartime propaganda. It's sort of like going back to World II and World War I when they related what you eat and don't eat -- whether you threw out leftover rice -- to the war effort."

But even as the debate rages about the nuance and approach in this campaign, new research shows that, regardless of their content or gimmick, anti-drug advertisements aren't necessarily making an impression on the audience they are meant to sway anyway. The political propaganda behind the terror-drug ads would be forgivable, theoretically, if the ads were actually convincing vast numbers of American youth to steer clear of drugs. But judging by the most recent research on anti-drug advertising efficacy, the ONDCP may need to return to the drawing board.

It is possible, of course, that guilt about terrorism as a means of enforcing "social responsibility" will, in fact, cause drug usage to plummet dramatically. Maybe teens really will steel themselves with thoughts of Osama bin Laden the next time someone offers them a joint, and just say no. (Never mind the fact that the joint was more likely to come from Humboldt County than Afghanistan or Iraq.) But the experts aren't counting on it, partly because recent reports show that, in general, there's no concrete link between anti-drug propaganda and teen drug use rates.

According to de Vallance, the new terror-drug ads have been hugely successful -- both because of the buzz they've created (some 175 articles have been written about the campaign already), and because of the impact they supposedly have had on youth. "These ads, in focus group testing, had among the highest results of reducing intention to use that we've seen in the history of the campaign," says de Vallance, who reports that more than 70 percent of the focus group teens said the ads would deter them from trying drugs.

While encouraging, the focus group reports do not ensure that the drug-terror ads will work. In fact, it is quite possible that, in these days of fulsome anti-terror rhetoric, the focus group teens felt pressured to report that they wouldn't support terrorism by doing drugs.

When the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign launched in 1998, a massive research effort launched with it: With more than $1 billion apportioned for anti-drug advertising, the stakes were high enough to initiate a process to establish whether the money was well spent. The effort was spearheaded by Westat, an independent research group in Maryland, with the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School conducting much of the actual research. Every six months, researchers visit some 8,000 kids and their parents in their homes to interview them about their personal drug use and the ads they've seen. (They are promised anonymity.) Three reports have been issued since the research began in September 1999; three more are still to come.

In October of 2001, the researchers published their latest report assessing the cumulative effectiveness of all the new ads that had been issued by the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign since its launch. The good news was that drug ads targeting parents often do encourage parents to talk to their kids about drugs. The bad news was that, thus far, the media campaign hadn't had a measurable impact on the kids at all.

The average kid is currently seeing an anti-drug ad 2.7 times a week, according to Robert Hornik, Annenberg School professor and the scientific director of the report. "We're seeing lots of reports of exposure," says Hornik. But "we haven't seen any real change over time, and no real association between exposure and outcomes." This means that the kids see the ads, but it doesn't seem to have an immediate impact on their drug-use behavior.

Hornik warns that the October data represents only 18 months' worth of research, and that there will be three more reports: "It could be that it will take more time for the kids to be affected," he says. Still, Hornik's report isn't the only one with bad news for anti-drug advertisers: In the American Journal of Public Health, an unrelated group of University of Pennsylvania researchers also discovered that many of the approaches used by anti-drug ads are not only ineffective, but often even encourage kids to do drugs.

"Although there is some evidence that mass media campaigns can be successful, most studies evaluating mass media campaigns have found little or no effect," the report posits. The researchers selected 30 anti-drug advertisements created by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in the last four years and showed them to 3,608 students in grades 5 through 12. Afterwards, they interviewed the students about their responses to the ads. The researchers broke down the ads into categories -- ads that focused on the negative consequences of drug use (i.e., "This is your brain on drugs"), ads that focused on self-esteem issues (i.e., "The anti-drug"), ads that stressed "Just say no," as well as celebrity testimonials; and a category of ads about the dangers of heroin or methamphetamines. They then used the students' responses to measure the overall efficacy of each approach.

The results were decidedly mixed. Researchers discovered that 16 ads seemed to be effective in discouraging drug use; but another eight ads had no measurable effect whatsoever, and six ads actually spurred the viewer to either want to go try the drugs, or feel less confident about how to reject them. Unfortunately, the ads that had the greatest impact on the viewers were the ones that scared kids away from heroin and methamphetamines -- drugs which most teens are not likely to try anyway. The least effective ads were the ones that addressed marijuana and "drugs in general" -- ironically, the drugs that most teens are doing in the first place.

As the report concluded, "it may be much more difficult to change young people's beliefs, attitudes and intentions regarding use of marijuana than use of 'harder drugs' ... The PSAs appear to have the biggest impact on those who seem to need them the least; or, those who most need to be influenced by these PSAs (i.e., those who do not view these risky behaviors as harmful or dangerous) are least likely to view the PSAs as effective." In other words, the kids who are already prone to try drugs aren't going to be discouraged by what they see in the ads; and the kids who wouldn't try them anyway are going to be most affected.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America acknowledges the results of the study, but has no plans to change its approach. In general, says Steve Dnistrian, the executive vice president of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, it's difficult to find concrete evidence that advertising does or doesn't work; to draw a direct line of cause (advertisement) with effect (purchase, or, in the case of drugs, lack thereof).

"There is no perfect way to measure advertising effectiveness," he says. "These [research results] are numbers we would take on any day of the week; in our mind, this is a very, very strong case to be made for the effectiveness of these ads. It also points to the issue that we've known for a long time -- no single ad will do the trick, which is why you need multiple ads and multiple strategies."

Dnistrian does have a point: Critical as many people are of many anti-drug campaigns, it's difficult to advocate that they be completely removed from the airwaves. Even if the ads aren't individually effective, they keep the issue of drugs in the public dialogue. And during those serendipitous times when anti-drug ads dovetail with national alarm over a topic -- the influence of "Big Tobacco," or the sudden widespread use of crack -- it is likely that they influence a broad, if brief, disgust with all drugs.

But even if anti-drug campaigns succeed in keeping drugs in the public consciousness, there is a nagging issue, exposed in research, that some ads are so bad that they alienate their intended audience. Advertising executive DiMassimo says the ONDCP's ads are particularly egregious, at least from an advertising executive's point of view: "The ONDCP generates long lists of approved messaging: Much of it comes out in the clunky language of social scientists, and it is a source of amusement and consternation among the creative people and communication professionals who make up the Partnership."

The various advertising agencies that contribute to the Partnership's campaign tend to use traditional tools in creating their ads. DiMassimo describes this as "going to hang out with teens, learn about them, and then coming back with details in their language, like a cultural anthropologist." This type of saturation research works much of the time, he says, admitting that some ad industry veterans who have used this approach to make anti-drugs ads have often missed the mark as well.

Based on his own experience advertising to kids, DiMassimo believes that ads that try to be "cool" are the ones that will be received most skeptically -- for example, the clunky series of ads that educated teenagers onhow to say "no" to the drugged out "cool" kids who hang out at "hip" parties. The ads appeared to have been made by out-of-touch authorities who have no idea how kids dress, talk or dance.

The biggest mistake, says DiMassimo, is when the ads "overstate the danger" of drugs. "Kids believe anti-drug people are stiff, uptight, overnervous parental-type figures, and when you overdo it you play in to that side of the brand," he says. Kids know perfectly well that drugs are fun, he says, and there is little point in trying to tell them otherwise, ` la "Reefer Madness." He describes the best kind of ad as a cost-benefit analysis: "The Partnership's work on marijuana is understated -- we say that no one says pot will kill you, but that there are better things to be than a burnout." He uses the ONDCP's terrorism ads as an example of the worst kind of authoritarian browbeating of teens and believes most kids will know that the ads are overstated.

Still, DiMassimo's own campaign -- the Partnership's ambitious new anti-Ecstasy initiative -- could be accused of overstatement. Twenty-seven people out of an estimated 3.4 million who used Ecstasy between 1994 and 1999 died under the influence of the drug; yet the new campaign chooses to focus on the death of one young woman as a warning against using the drug. You could say that the ads are merely focusing on the worst-case scenario, but kids who are aware of just how rare Ecstasy deaths are might simply reject the ads wholesale as authoritarian exaggeration. Other anti-Ecstasy ads are equally dramatic, depicting teens partying it up on E while their friend lies passed out and alone in the bathroom, under the tagline "Ecstasy: Where's the Love?"

Critics of anti-drug advertising who follow this research wonder whether ads that try to discourage kids from doing drugs aren't mostly futile. They often insist that the money would be better spent addressing kids who do drugs and need help dealing with their addiction. "Everything the ONDCP and Partnership does is focused on 'Just Say No,' mostly scare tactics, and occasionally a positive message about why you shouldn't choose drugs," says Nadelmann. "We think you should do messages directed at young people who are already experimenting or doing drugs, aimed at keeping them out of trouble." He notes: "Surveys show that campaigns directed at getting people to not do things are the least effective."

Drug war reformers like Nadelmann and David Borden, executive director of the liberal Drug Reform Coordination Network, tend to support peer education programs and harm-reduction principles over blanket advertising (and, similarly, they prefer legalization or treatment to expensive interdiction). "You have to meet people where they are. Every young person is in a different place, so the programs that will work the best are the ones that are run by or with their peers," says Borden. "You can't do that by running ads during the Superbowl."

It will take months, even years, to know whether the new anti-drug campaign has an impact on drug use, although Walters has promised that these efforts and others will reduce drug use by 25 percent by 2007. It is a bold commitment given that the ingredients of effective anti-drug advertising remain something of a mystery; and since youthful tastes are as flighty as the videos on MTV, they probably will remain so for quite some time. But there is also little evidence to suggest that Walters would get better results if he moved his $180 million ad dollars to peer education programs and harm reduction groups. The terror-drug ads are perhaps best viewed as a public relations machine for the Bush administration, summing up in a few words (and a lot of taxpayer money) the government's moral philosophies, the way "Just Say No" summed up the Reagan era.

Government drug propaganda is just that: propaganda veiled as a behavior modification tool. It seems that no number of simplistic, catchy anti-drug slogans can fully shape America's convoluted and varied attitude towards drugs. Even certain Bush family members have been known to stray, and surely Bush Senior told them all about "Just Say No." Perhaps some Americans will always have an appetite for drugs, and no remedy -- advertising, interdiction, education or criminal punishment -- will ever eradicate it.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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