Challenging Dogma - Fall 2007

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The National Anti-Drug Media Campaign against marijuana use: Poor Understanding of Adolescents leads to Campaign Failure –Marsha Kocherla

1n 1998 The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in response to an upsurge of recreational drug use among adolescents. Drug use had been declining since the late 1970’s but rose sharply in the 1990’s from 10 percent in 1991 to 22 percent in 1998. The ONDCP proposed the 5-year campaign to Congress in 1997 and received $1 billion in federal support. This is the largest financial commitment that the federal government has ever made to an anti-drug media campaign (1).
Following the lead of other programs designed to promote youth health, the ONDCP relied on The Social Cognitive Theory of behavior to design the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Social Cognitive Theory emphasizes the dynamic interaction of social-environmental factors, behavioral factors and personal factors in determining human behavior. Social-environmental factors are aspects of the environment that promote, permit, or discourage engagement in a particular behavior. These factors include influential role models (peers, teachers, etc.), situational contexts, social norms for behavior, and social support from friends and family. Behavioral factors are preexisting factors that affect behavior directly; these include extant behavior patterns, behavioral intentions, behavioral abilities, and coping skills. Personal factors are individual dispositions and cognitions that influence the likelihood of a person’s engagement in a particular behavior. These factors include level of knowledge about the behavior, personal attitudes towards the behavior, values, beliefs, and self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s own ability to carry out a certain behavior (2). Personal factors also include such complex abilities as the ability to determine the underlying meanings of behavior, the ability to foresee the outcomes of behavior, the ability to learn by observing others, the ability to self-regulate and self-determine behavior, and the ability to reflect on and analyze behavior (1). Social Cognitive Theory, by addressing the influence of multiple factors on behavior, recognizes the multi-dimensionality of behavior. The National Youth Anti-Drug Campaign however failed to understand the complexity of adolescents, and thus was unable to impact its target audience in any significant way.
The campaign relies on appeals to emotion rather than to reason
One of the main objectives of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is to enhance perceptions that using certain drugs will lead to negative social consequences. The campaign takes the stance that smoking marijuana makes someone more likely to disappoint peers and family (1). The “Swim Meet” advertisement exemplifies an attempt to convey this message. The piece begins at a swim meet with the sound of a whistle being blown. We see three lanes (5, 4, and 3 from left to right) and three women’s swim teams. An announcer on a megaphone introduces the event: “JV Women’s 200 meter medley relay.” The teams in lanes 3 and 5 each have a swimmer on the diving board and three swimmers lined up behind her. There are only three members in lane 4, however, and they are standing around the diving board, scanning anxiously for the starting swimmer, who is conspicuously absent. The announcer notices and asks over the megaphone, “Do we have a swimmer for lane 4?” There is no answer, only the sound of a cough from the audience and people shifting in their seats. The announcer repeats the question, a brief silence follows, and the narrator begins the message of the ad: “Just tell your teammates you missed the race because you were getting stoned…” The announcer calls, “swimmers take your marks,” and the swimmers in lanes 5 and 3 poise themselves to dive into the water; the swimmers in lane 4 stand helplessly. “They’ll understand,” the narrator finishes. The viewer hears the starting horn as the words, “Responsibility; your anti-drug” flash across the screen (3).
This advertisement is ineffective because the behavior being negatively portrayed is not marijuana smoking but irresponsibility, which is assumed to be a result of marijuana smoking. The teammates’ disappointment at being unable to participate in the swim meet is the major appeal to pathos in this advertisement. The viewer is supposed to feel sympathy for the swimmers and he does. But the advertisement seems to expect that this sympathy for the swimmers will somehow translate into disapproval of marijuana smoking. Marijuana smoking is not the only behavior that could result in the situation portrayed by the advertisement and the viewers know that. Youth are not blindly led and are not easily persuaded; they demonstrate a complex capability to filter, interpret, and if necessary, reject messages presented by the media, and are very capable of separating emotional appeals from persuasive fact. While viewers may have an emotional response to the immediate stimulus of the advertisement, this will not translate into a long-term change in perception about drug-use (4).

The campaign fails to understand its target demographic

The members of the National Youth Anti Drug Campaign’s target demographic fall into one of two categories: late childhood, the period from age 9 to 12, or adolescence, the period from age 13 to 18. These periods of development are marked by dramatic cognitive changes, which include the development of the ability to reason logically (ages 7 to 11) and the ability to reason abstractly (ages 12 to 18). In addition, during these periods thought is becoming less egocentric and children are beginning to place more and more importance on developing close social relationships (5, 6). It is important for a media campaign targeting youth to understand the importance of social relationships in the lives of adolescents.
The swimmers in the advertisement, being normal adolescents, would probably not be as quick to judge or to excommunicate their missing teammate as the advertisement suggests. They would also be unlikely to place a swim meet as being more important than their teammate, and their love of swimming or enjoyment of the team would probably not be diminished by the day’s experience. Reaping the benefits of youth sports does not require intense competition or especial athletic prowess; it only requires participation. The major benefit of participating in youth sports is the social acceptance and self-esteem gained by being a member of a team (7). Excellence and victory are smaller components of organized sports that can only be reached once mutual respect, affability, and positivity exist within the team (8).
The outcome of drug use as portrayed by the campaign is not perceived as negative
“Supermarket,” another Anti-Drug advertisement, begins with an older teenager standing in a darkened super-market parking lot, shifting his weight and trying to keep warm, while inviting the stares of passers-by. He is obviously waiting for someone, a younger teenager, named Anthony, who appears from the supermarket after saying goodnight to the manager. Upon seeing Anthony, the older teen crosses the parking lot and calls his name. Anthony looks pleasantly surprised and asks the older teen what he is doing there. The older teen says that he is waiting for Anthony and Anthony asks, “What’s up?” The older teen hesitates, clearly uncertain of how to begin. The narrator speaks. “It takes a lot of guts to talk to your friends about their problems with drugs or drinking but it could make all the difference.” The screen fades and the message of the ad is displayed: “Courage: the anti-drug” (9).
This advertisement does not seem to be aimed at the drug-user but at the friends of drug-users, whom the advertisement encourages to dissuade their friends from using drugs. The advertisement is based on several assumptions, many of which are unfounded, and some of which are contrary to research findings. The advertisement assumes that there is a significant faction of teenagers in existence who have strong views against marijuana, but this is not the case. Social disapproval of marijuana smoking has decreased since the 1970’s, along with the perception of marijuana’s risk to health (10). The focus on marijuana in the media, rather than deterring marijuana use, has sent the message that marijuana use is common and widespread (11).
The advertisement also expects that the viewer will side with the older teenager, but by failing to develop the character, does not give the viewer a valid reason to do so. All that the viewer sees about the older teenager is that he is lurking in a darkened parking lot, visiting his friend at work, unannounced, and bringing up a subject that may cause conflict in the friendship. The soundness of the older teenager’s argument against drugs and proof of his courageous character are not presented, and this lack of evidence confers the older teenager no advantage in winning the viewer’s sympathy (3). Anthony, the drug-user in this piece, on the contrary, presents quite a positive image.
By being gainfully employed, Anthony is not only enriching his own life, but is contributing to the economy and to the community (12). Working late nights at a supermarket, Anthony seems disciplined, and his affability with the manager suggests that he is a good worker. Moreover, Anthony, although tired from a day of work, is still polite enough to spare time for a friend who wants to talk. The viewer sees no negative effects of drug use on Anthony’s life; rather, Anthony seems financially stable and socially adept, which gives the viewer little reason to think him in distress or in need of an intervention. Anthony’s array of competencies makes him more likely to be regarded as popular, a distinction that would give him greater influence over peers than the average teenager (13).


In conclusion, the campaign fails primarily because it misunderstands its target audience. The ONDCP fails to appreciate the complexity of adolescent thinking; by focusing on evoking emotion from the viewer rather than persuading him with facts, the campaign fails to induce a long term change in perception. Furthermore, the campaign overlooks monumental importance of peer relationships in the adolescent life. Finally, messages based on assumptions that are often contradictory to research undermine message credibility and dilute the efficacy of the campaign.
The National Youth Anti-Drug Campaign is unprecedented in breadth and in the financial support it garnered. However, due to ineffective strategies, the campaign proved disappointing (14). This not only implies a waste of resources but also the unchecked exacerbation of the drug problem in America.


1. Kedler, S.l. Planning and Initiation of the ONDCP National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Journal of Public Health Management Practice. 2000; 6:14-26.
2. Edberg, M. Essentials of Health Behavior. Sudsbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers,2007.
3. “Swimmeet” Anti-Drug Ads. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
4. Katovich, M. Media Technologies, Images of Drugs, and an Evocative Telepresence. Qualitative Sociology. 1998; 21:277-297.
5. Dasen, P. Cross Cultural Piagetian Research: A Summary. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology. 1972; 3:23-40.
6. Erikson, E. Childhood and Society. New York, NY: Norton, 1950.
7. Seefeldt, V. Youth Sports in America: An Overview. PCPFS Research Digest. 11: 2-20.
8. Schewe, A. Find the right sports program for your kids. CNN, 2005
9. “Supermarket” Anti-Drug Ads. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.
10. Bachman, J. et al. Explaining Recent Increases in Students’ Marijuana Use: Impacts of Perceived Risks and Disapproval, 1976 through 1996. American Journal of Public Health 1998; 88: 887-892.
11. Leinwand, D. Anti-drug advertising campaign a failure, GAO report says. USA Today. 29 Aug. 2006; 3 Dec. 2007.
12. International Labour Office. Youth Employment: A Global Goal, a National Challenge. Geneva, Switzerland: International Labour Office, 2005.
13. Newcomb, AF. Children’s peer relations: a meta-analytic review of popular, rejected, neglected, controversial, and average sociometric status. Psychological Bulletin. 1993; 113: 99-128.
14. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Evaluation of the Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Washington, DC: National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2004.

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