Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

...Using the social and behavioral sciences to improve the practice of public health.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Anti Drug and Marijuana Ad Campaigns Fail To Dissuade Youths From Smoking – Aaron Manders

Anti marijuana advertisement campaigns have failed to effectively curtail marijuana use amongst adolescents. A report by Westat, Inc. written by Orwin, et al., showed that increased exposure to certain anti marijuana advertisements has been linked to an increase in weakened anti drug norms among adolescents and the increased perception that their peers are using marijuana. Their latest report detailing the effectiveness of the largely anti marijuana anti drug campaign (1998-2004) sponsored by the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (NYADMC) and the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) showed no attributable benefit to the campaign. Furthermore, higher exposure to the anti marijuana portion of the campaign was correlated with an increased smoking initiation and lacked a correlation between increased exposure and decreased use or quitting (1).
Although the federal government failed to create a campaign that significantly decreased marijuana usage, smaller scale campaigns have shown positive results in adolescent populations (2,3). Thus, the failure of the campaigns sponsored by NIDA and NYADMC are inexcusable. National campaigns to lower adolescent use of marijuana have been largely ineffective because they either focus on fear or absurd over exaggeration. In addition, the campaigns failed to consult and apply adequate research, did not appeal to teenage sensibilities, failed to apply relevant social science theories, nor are they congruent with messages portrayed in mass media or state government legislation.
In Focus: Recent Anti Marijuana Advertising
The following will focus on recent marijuana campaigns, specifically, the advertisements that were created during the Bush presidency. Before President Bush appointed John Walters anti drug messages had focused on a variety of drugs, but once Walters was appointed he decided to focus on marijuana use. Ben Wallace-Wells reported that Walters dismissed scientific data that failed to find a significant connection between marijuana use and later use of other illicit drugs. Walters’ tenure as drug czar led to the creation of ads with a variety of approaches (4). Some ads are more effective than others, but according to Westat, Inc’s data have culminated in an overall failure (1).
In the past the ad campaigns have been ineffective because they relied primarily on scare tactics, focused on negative consequences, and used obvious exaggeration rather than focusing on issues important to adolescents. Ad campaigns focused on fear and negative consequences have been shown to often be counter productive (5). Furthermore, the research that provided the basis for recent anti marijuana ad campaigns was focused on self reporting by adolescents. Self reporting of substance abuse may be an inaccurate representation of the actual actions of teens (6,7). In addition, influences such as peer pressure, a desire to conform, and cynicism of the messages of adults may further distort self reported analysis (8). Brandweek conducted a series of focus groups in order to discover adolescents’ feelings on anti drug messages directed at their demographic. The adolescents reported that they wished for life like scenarios that were plausible in their own lives. The adolescents also expressed a desire for truth in advertisements. Brandweek’s focus groups, as well as National Research Council reports point to the reasons why the campaigns have failed (9,10). However, nine years after publication and one campaign failure later, the Above the Influence campaign is still putting forth comical and unrealistic advertisements to decrease adolescent marijuana use (1,11).
A Sample of the Advertisements
Three ads highlight approaches that have been continually unsuccessful. First, the “Stoners in the Mist” series available at documents a jungle survey team researching the native habits of the not so elusive “stoner.” The series of public service announcements are outlandish, silly, unlike anything teens truly encounter, provide fodder for ridicule form media sources and potential contempt from their target demographic. Another ad shows a talking dog telling a high teen that he misses her as a friend. The talking dog insinuates that marijuana will make you hallucinate, which adolescent’s will recognize as untrue, deceptive, and consequently reject the desired premise of the ad that smoking marijuana will push you out of your peer group. Finally, a girl walks out of her house to find that pictures of her doing something wild, obscene, or embarrassing have flooded the internet and have subsequently ruined her life - because she “got high.” The ad attempts to use the popularity of social networking sites and the ability to spread data quickly to try to scare teens out of using marijuana. Once again, the claims are sensationalized and there is no mention of alcohol consumption which lowers inhibitions (11). Also, the plot is too simple to not draw the cynicism of the target demographic. In addition, the ads are at odds with other ads in the campaign which note that nothing bad is going to happen if you smoke marijuana other than wasting your life on a couch (12). The incongruent advertisements highlight the mixed messages which are extremely detrimental to the effectiveness of anti marijuana advertisement.
Mixed Messages
There are mixed messages between the federal government’s own advertisements, current laws regarding marijuana possession, and the message of the media (print, television, radio, movies and now the internet). The anti marijuana advertisements fail to consider the overwhelming and increasingly pervasive role of agenda theory in a web based culture. Agenda theory states that media outlets have a large portion of control over which messages will be related to the public and therefore largely influence which issues the public finds important (13). Increasingly, mainstream media outlets have aired programs challenging the government’s policy. Media sources such as ABC News, Salon, the Daily Show, Slate, the Washington Post, and the Huffington Post have all produced segments or articles that are contrary to the government’s anti marijuana agenda. The internet also provides adolescents with a portal to less mainstream media such as web logs and emergent web sites such as Digg, Reddit, and Plastic that provide a constant stream of messages often opposed to that which the federal government is trying to set forth. Furthermore, individual states and cities have proposed and passed legislation legalizing medical marijuana use as well as decriminalizing marijuana possession (14,15). The laws help increase confusion and distrust with the anti marijuana message from the federal government. With the increased importance pervasiveness of today’s varied media culture, pro or anti marijuana challenging messages can be easily spread through an adolescent’s social network.
Adolescents are subjected to a large amount and variety of messages every day. They are bombarded with advertisements and other social influences. The combination of media, rumors among social networks and peers, heavy emphasis on anti marijuana campaigns and severe penalties associated with marijuana may all push to internalize a message of mass marijuana use amongst teens when the numbers are not alarmingly high. Only 6.6% of 8th graders, 15.2% of 10th graders, and 19.8% of 12th graders surveyed by the NIDA had used marijuana in the past thirty days (16). Although communicative efforts have been shown effective at changing perceived norms, the advertisements perpetuate the norm of widespread marijuana use (17). For example, one Above the Influence ad depicts a teen driving around his high friends while informing the viewer how he’s still part of the group even though he does not smoke. The ad makes the point that remaining a vital member to your social group without smoking marijuana is possible. However, the ad fails because it perpetuates the perceived norm that smoking marijuana is the norm rather than the exception. Messages such as the one in the previous ad may become internalized. Internalization occurs when an idea, action, or norm is accepted and adopted by an individual. The internalization versus the absence of internalization, which Kelman referred to as compliance, is an important distinction. If a message is internalized the message need not be as strongly supported by an individuals referent group which includes peers, family, or significant others (18,19). For example, a perceived norm that is actually false may be perpetuated even though person’s social network does not support that norm (19). Perceived norms of high levels of marijuana use among the adolescent populations may be similarly perpetuated. The government has created advertisements that reinforce the perceived norm and help aid internalization of said norm. When the perceived norm of marijuana use is further reinforced by the messages of mass media the norm may become difficult to alter. Advertisements that reinforce a perceived norm is neither realistic nor beneficial to the goals of anti marijuana advertisements.
Thus far, the anti marijuana ad campaigns have failed to provide a consistent message that appeal to teens sensibilities and values that include the need to fit into social norms, conform to peer and social groups, and suspicion of adult messages. Studies have shown a significant link between exposure to illicit drug use in peer networks and use of illicit drugs (20). Yet, most ads fail to take exposure within peer groups into account. Certain ads have addressed the importance influence of social networks and social influences. One Above the Influence ad tried to address the issue of social networks and the influence of peers. The ad titled “S.L.O.M.” depicts a school which has a problem with kids sticking leaches on themselves as an analogy to marijuana use. The advertisement is meant to connect marijuana use with a completely absurd action, in addition to drawing on the adolescent’s desire to be an individual. However, the ad fails miserably in several ways. First, the ad affirms the perceived norm of widespread marijuana use. Secondly, the ad it misinterprets an adolescent’s want to be an individual in the context of his overall environment with an adolescent’s desire to be an individual while conforming to social norms within valued peer groups. Finally, the ad fails because it makes SLOMing look cool. The students SLOM in the bathrooms, hallways and even classrooms at school while befuddling and frustrating the adults which the adolescent’s so desire to rebel against. “S.L.O.M.” shows that you can be cool, attractive, fit in, and stick-it to the teachers by smoking marijuana.
Although the advertisement creators mistakenly portrayed marijuana use in a desirable light, they have advanced beyond focusing on negative consequences in ads. The “just say no” attitude is condescending to the perceived intricacies of an adolescent’s life (8,9). Past ads focused on the supposed horrors of marijuana use rather than relating to important factors in an adolescents life. Ads that tell adolescent’s that their marijuana habit is funding terrorism, or going to cause them to run over a little girl on a bicycle, or shoot their friend in the face in no way approach teens on their level.
In Summation: Failure and the Future
Anti marijuana advertisements aimed at adolescents must take into consideration a whole range of factors including peer networks, social norms, the media’s agenda, and adolescent’s perceived needs and desires. Addressing all of these issues simultaneously may be nearly impossible and fortunately for the public, but not for the NYADMC, the media’s agenda is largely out of their control. Unlike the Truth campaign which focused on rebelling against tobacco corporations while still showing the negative effects of cigarette smoke, anti marijuana advertisements lack the corroboration of overwhelming and consistent scientific data regarding the drug’s deleterious effects. However, the anti marijuana campaigns still have hope. Ads that focus on the important values of adolescent life – peer acceptance, social status, and conforming to social norms could be addressed more effectively. The Above the Influence campaign has shown promise and a cautiously favorable media reaction (21). However, many of the ads still sensationalize, and either do not address the core values of adolescents or do so in a manner that is comical to the point of satirizing itself (i.e. Stoners in the Mist). Although the advertisements have promise further research must be conducted in order to create cohesive messages that truly appeal to and effect the target adolescent demographic.
1. Westat, Inc. Evaluation of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: 2004 Report of Findings, Executive Summary. Washington DC: Westate, Inc. 2006.
2. Grabmeier, J. New Anti-Drug Program Shows ‘Phenomenal Success’ by Focusing on Positives. Research Communications, OSU., 2006.
3. Palmgreen, et al., Television Campaigns and Adolescent Marijuana Use: Tests of Sensation Seeking Targeting. American Journal of Public Health. 2001; 91: 292–296.
4. Wallace-Wells, B. How America Lost the War on Drugs. In: Rolling Stone Magazine. Nov. 2007.
5. Varshavsky, T. Media Drug Prevention and Public Service Advertising: Evaluating The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Tufts University, 2003.
6. Fan, et al., An Exploratory Study about Inaccuracy and Invalidity in Adolescent Self-Report Surveys. Field Methods. 2006; 18: 223-244 (2006)
7. Williams, R and Nowatzki, N. Validity of Adolescent Self-Report of Substance Use. Substance Use & Misuse. 2005; 299-311.
8. Hill, D. “Drug Money” Brandweek. 1998; 39: 20-27.
9. Desperately seeking solutions. Brandweek. 1998; 39: 29-32.
10. National Research Council. Policy on Illegal Drugs. What We Don’t Know Keeps Hurting Us. Committee on Data and Research for Policy on Illegal Drugs. Washington D.C.: National Academy Press, 2001.
11. Carleton College. Blood Alcohol Concentration. Northfield, MN.
12. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Pete’s Couch Advertisement. Washington, DC.
13. Carroll, C. and Combs, M. Agenda-setting Effects of Business News on the Public’s Images and Opinions about Major Corporations. Corporate Reputation Review. 2003; 6: 35-46.
14. Oregon Medical Marijuana Program (OMMP). Oregon, USA., 2007.
15. O'Driscoll, P. Denver votes to legalize marijuana possession. USA Today;, 2005.
16. National Institute on Drug Abuse. NIDA InfoFacts. Washington, DC: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2006.
17. Borsary, B., & Carey, K.B. Descriptive and injunctive norms in college drinking: A meta-analytic integration. Journal of Studies on Alcohol. 2003; 64: 331-341.
18. Kelman, H.C. Process of Opinion Change. Public Opinion Quarterly. 1961; 25: 57-78.
19. Lapinski, M., Rimal, R. An Explication of Social Norms. Communication Theory. 2005; 15: 127-147.
20. Kuntsche, El & Delgrande Jordan, M. Adolescent alcohol and cannabis use in relation to peer and school factors Results of multilevel analyses. Drug and Alcohol Dependence. 2006; 84: 167-174.
21. Stevenson, S. This Is Your Ass on Drugs: The New Case on Pot? It Makes You Lazy., 2006.

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