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Anti-drug ad campaigns a flop

So much for those flashy TV ads intended to inspire American kids to stay off drugs. The new U.S. drug czar, John P. Walters, says the government's antidrug advertising of recent years has failed. Worse, he fears it even may have inspired some youngsters to experiment with marijuana.

"This campaign isn't reducing drug use," said Mr. Walters, who became head of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy earlier this year.

Mr. Walters was openly critical of the ads even before taking office, and argued that the advertising effort was in dire need of an overhaul. Now, he said, he is armed with survey data that support his suspicions that the campaign hasn't worked.

The five-year-old antidrug program is unusual among public-health advertising because it is funded largely by taxpayers - $929 million so far - rather than nonprofit groups or public service spots that media outlets run free of charge. Moreover, Congress enacted an unusual law requiring TV networks, cable outlets, magazines and other media to donate an equal amount of ad space for each ad purchase, effectively doubling the impact of the government dollars.

The so-called National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign includes more than 212 TV commercials featuring such performers as the Dixie Chicks and hip-hop singer Mary J. Blige, as well as actors posing as drug users. The campaign, developed by some of the best-known agencies on Madison Avenue, was considered a novel step in public health advertising because it was aimed directly at kids. (The ads didn't include the famous "This is your brain on drugs" commercials, a campaign from a nonprofit group that no longer is being used.)

The antidrug effort is now up for reauthorization for an additional five years. At a time when plenty of government programs are seeking funding, Mr. Walters wants Congress to appropriate for next fiscal year the same $180 million it gave to the campaign this year, though he argues it will be managed more efficiently. He spent much of Monday afternoon placing calls to U.S. lawmakers, national nonprofit organizations and other players in the war on drugs to argue that while the effort has failed to achieve its goals, it deserves continued support.

Changes planned by Mr. Walters include testing all commercials for effectiveness prior to airing them - a practice that is standard for corporate advertisers. His agency says it hasn't been able to test about 65% of the ads it airs because they often show up at the last minute after it already has committed to purchasing commercial time. In most cases, the government gets the spots not directly from an ad agency but through a middleman ad-industry organization that leans on agencies to donate time, talent and ideas for developing the spots.

In effect, Mr. Walters is attempting to spin some otherwise gloomy news. His office this week intends to release an evaluation of the campaign showing there's little evidence it has had direct favorable effects on youth between 2000 and 2001. In fact, some kids who saw the ads, particularly girls aged 12 to 13 who didn't already use drugs, said they were slightly more likely to smoke pot after seeing the commercials. That finding might be a statistical anomaly.

The evaluation is based on interviews from September 1999 through December 2001 with youth ages 12 to 18 as well as parents. These groups were interviewed separately by an outside research firm that used laptop computers to show them the commercials. Participants were then queried about their intentions to use drugs in the next 12 months. The report represents the most significant effort to measure the effectiveness of the campaign.

The campaign's ads have varied in tone, from uplifting to somber, and were broadcast frequently on TV, particularly during shows that tend to be popular with kids, such as Viacom Inc.'s MTV, sitcoms and professional wrestling matches. One 30-second spot, called "Drawing" by Omnicom Group Inc.'s Merkley Newman Harty Partners, implied that hobbies such as drawing could deliver a natural high. Other ads in the series, which was done by a variety of agencies, were harshly realistic. The 30-second spot "Rodney Harvey" showed snapshots of a model posing as a doped-up addict. The last frame implies he had wasted away to death.

But some of the ads took a soft approach as the government attempted to reach young children.

A commercial called "No Skill" from the agency Muse Codero Chen begins with some eerie bongs as background music. A boy's voice asks, "You gonna mess with that weed again?" as young kids shoot hoops and a stoned young boy shows up at a school track meet. "I thought you stopped smoking," the voice says. "Friends," from WPP Group PLC's Ogilvy & Mather, is even less direct. It shows a birthday cake and party hats with the voice of a young boy talking about how friends stick together. The ad ends with the drug agency's logo.

It is unclear exactly why the ads haven't lowered drug use by kids in any measurable way. Antismoking campaigns and campaigns touting seat belts have been shown to be effective in getting adults to change their habits.

Mr. Walters suggested that the ads' messages were "too indirect" to have an impact, and speculated that the commercials might be doing more harm than good. "If an ad answers a question that a child doesn't have, there's a chance you'll incite his or her curiosity," he said.

So far, the testing hasn't measured what, if any, impact was made by the most recent group of ads, which link illegal drug use to acts of terrorism. Those commercials feature footage of assault weapons, duct tape and explosives, and imply that the weapons were funded by drug sales in the U.S.

Although traditional advertising has been the centerpiece of the effort, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has been experimenting with other means of getting its message across. For example, the office has been bringing together TV script writers with drug abuse experts in an effort to persuade the creators of TV shows to show drug abuse as a problem that extends beyond poor inner-city neighborhoods.

Starved for ad dollars amid an advertising recession now in its second year, the media world initially hoped it could get paid by the antidrug agency to promote its cause in shows. But the government so far hasn't paid for script development with taxpayer funds.

People familiar with the matter said that if the traditional advertising continues to deliver disappointing results, the office will abandon the program and Mr. Walters will begin to experiment with other ways of reaching young people. He declined to be more specific, adding, "We intend to be more rigorous in our testing." Mr. Walters also suggested he may target older teenagers rather than kids 12 and 13 years old.

According to data cited by the government agency, drug abuse by young people remains stubbornly high. In an annual survey by the University of Michigan released last December, 25% of high-school seniors said they used illegal drugs in the prior month; more than half said they experimented with illegal drugs at least once before graduation.


Vanessa O'Connell, WSJ.com. May 14, 2002

Copyright © 2002 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.. All rights reserved.