Anti-Drinking Ads: Give It to 'em Straight
by Bill Piper
The U.S. House recently authorized a study on the creation of a national media campaign to urge teens not to drink, similar to the government's anti-marijuana ad campaign (which already has cost taxpayers more than a billion dollars). If the results of the government's anti-marijuana ads are any indication, the government's anti-alcohol ads would probably drive teens to drink.
Six studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse have found that the government's anti-marijuana ads are ineffective and might be making certain teens more likely to use marijuana. A 2002 study, for instance, found, "little evidence the Media Campaign has a direct, favorable effect on youth" and "those who were more exposed to the (ads) tended to move more markedly in a 'pro-drug' direction." More recently, a non-NIDA study by researchers at Texas State University-San Marcos found that college students who viewed the ads developed more positive attitudes toward marijuana than those who did not.
The results are not surprising. Research shows what doesn't work: "Scare-based" tactics, "just say no" platitudes and messages that are over-the-top or do not conform to people's perceptions and experiences. Paternalistic messages trigger rebellion. Repetitious warnings not to use drugs give people the false sense that all their peers are using drugs. And messages that distort the truth cause listeners to reject prevention messages. The government does more harm than good by running ads comparing marijuana smokers with terrorists and telling teens that marijuana will make them shoot their friends, get them pregnant and cause them to get their fist stuck in their mouth (all real ads paid for with your tax dollars).
But it's not just the government. The Montana Meth Project has been running over-the-top anti-meth ads for more than a year. One ad told teens if they use methamphetamine they will pick out their eyebrows until they bleed. Others claimed using meth "just once" leads to addiction, prostitution and death. Not surprising, the project's internal evaluations found the campaign ineffective.
In contrast, the anti-smoking "Truth" campaign has been highly successful. The ads don't talk down to teens or even tell them not to smoke. They basically say smoke if you want to, but it's stupid. And you'll have bad breath. And you won't to be able to run without gasping for breath. That's effective. Cornell University's anti-binge-drinking "smart woman" campaign is also promising. It avoids paternalistic messages not to drink and teaches students how to use good judgment and avoid high-risk drinking behavior.
Imagine if the government made an anti-smoking ad. It likely would be of a teenager smoking in bed. Who falls asleep. And is burned alive. Along with her sister. Or an ad showing a teen talked into smoking. Who starts smoking with the "bad crowd." And ends up raped. A government anti-drinking ad likely would depict a teen trying a beer, then drinking every day and then becoming a drunk homeless man. This "not one sip" message wouldn't persuade teens not to drink.
While it's certainly possible to make effective ads, which would require avoiding scare tactics, providing honest drug education and suggesting ways to reduce risks, the federal government has a long record of failure in this area. Policymakers should stop wasting money on silly commercials and fund effective programs, like after-school programs and treatment, instead.
Posted by permission of the author from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, where it was first published.