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3:27 pm
Sun April 28, 2013

Anti-Drug PSAs: Do They Work?

Originally published on Sun April 28, 2013 5:38 pm

The U.S. has spent millions of dollars since the 1980s on anti-drug ads. But research shows that some of these older public service announcements might be counterproductive. Now that the ads are shifting to reach teens who want to rebel, new studies show they may actually be more effective.

Shaunacy Ferro wrote about these TV spots in Popular Science. She explains that in some cases, the old ads like "this is your brain on drugs," may have encouraged teens to try drugs.

"Subconsciously, kids would start to think, 'Hmm, well I don't really know what doing drugs is like. Maybe I should try it,'" Ferro says.

There may be a scientific reason for that curiosity. Ohio University researcher Carson Wagner calls it an "information gap."

"We become curious to close that gap in information," Wagner says. "And in this case, that gap in information is the experience of using drugs."

It wasn't just that kids grew more curious. The clips from the early 1990s were pretty easy to mock. Wagner says that unfortunately the lingo didn't always hit the mark.

"You have people laughing at the person who's doing drugs, and calling that person names that are like so two years ago," Wagner says.

Finally, after more failed campaigns, the makers of PSAs adjusted. Gone were the scare tactics and the ads that made kids wonder if drugs would really scramble their brains. With the "Above the Influence" campaign, the spots began to appeal to the idea that teens want to be seen as individuals, different from their parents and even their peers.

Ferro says these ads were meant to appeal to teens trying to rebel.

"So much of being a teenager is wanting to be independent, that that's really the stance that anti-drug ads should take," she says.

These ads did a little better. A study from Ohio State University found that fewer teenagers who saw the "Above the Influence" clips tried marijuana.

"Eight percent of teenagers in a 2011 study who had seen the campaign and were familiar with it started smoking pot, versus 12 percent who had never seen it," Ferro says.

But Wagner says he thinks we shouldn't take that information at face value. He says ultimately teenagers understand this information is coming from the government.

"Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," he says. "Because they'll begin to ask the question, well from where is the influence coming?"

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Transcript

JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

Since the 1980s, the United States has spent millions of dollars on anti-drug ads. You've heard them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTI-DRUG AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

LYDEN: But research shows that some of these public service announcements might be counterproductive. Shaunacy Ferro wrote about these TV spots in Popular Science. She says the ads may have encouraged teens to think more about illegal drugs.

SHAUNACY FERRO: Subconsciously, kids would start to think, hmm, well, I don't really know what doing drugs is like. Maybe I should try it.

LYDEN: Ohio University researcher Carson Wagner says there's a scientific reason for that curiosity. He calls it an information gap.

CARSON WAGNER: And we become curious to close that gap in information. And in this case, that gap in information is the experience of using drugs.

LYDEN: And it wasn't just that kids grew more curious. The clips from the early 1990s were pretty easy to mock. Carson Wagner says the ad agencies used focus groups to learn the latest slang and then tried to convince viewers that the drug dealers were dorks. Unfortunately, the lingo didn't always hit the mark.

WAGNER: You have people laughing at the person who's doing drugs and calling that person these names that are like so two years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTI-DRUG AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hey, Joey, I got some stuff you just got to try.

JOEY: What is it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Pot. You know, marijuana.

JOEY: Oh, well, I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: What are you, chicken?

JOEY: I'm not chicken. You're a turkey.

LYDEN: So as we approached the new millennium, the makers of PSAs adjusted. Gone were the scare tactics and the ads that made kids wonder if drugs would really scramble their brains. Instead, ads stopped mentioning drugs at all. The My Anti-Drug campaign looked at how teens who didn't take drugs spent their time.

WAGNER: Think about it as a bucket. If you have a bucket that's empty and you start to fill it with something, if it's filled with basketball or skateboarding or school, once it gets filled up to the top, you can't fill it anymore.

LYDEN: Here's one of those ads from 2001. It features a young Justin Timberlake with his former group *NSYNC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANTI-DRUG AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I'm into...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Basketball.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: My family.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: You know the game with the little (unintelligible)?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Hand puppets.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: OK, guys. These are our anti-drugs.

SINGERS: What's your anti-drug?

LYDEN: Only one problem: The My Anti-Drug ads were mocked even more vehemently than the older ads had been. A 2006 study showed the campaign to be largely ineffective. So back to the drawing board. With the Above the Influence campaign, the spots began to appeal to the idea that teens want to be seen as individuals, different from their parents and even their peers. Shaunacy Ferro says these ads are finally getting some traction.

FERRO: Because so much of being a teenager is wanting to be independent that that's really the stance anti-drug ads should take is that doing drugs is sort of going to make you part of the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF ABOVE THE INFLUENCE AD)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: In high school, all you would hear about is how high someone is or how drunk people are.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #10: I'm trying to stay strong, but it's hard.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: It became a lot easier for me just to give in, and so I did.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I lost a lot of friends, and I didn't like who I was becoming.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #11: I realized I'd be OK if I didn't do all that stuff. And people are seriously (unintelligible) for that.

LYDEN: A study from Ohio State University found that fewer teenagers who saw the Above the Influence clips tried marijuana.

FERRO: Eight percent of teenagers in a 2011 study who had seen the campaign started smoking pot versus 12 percent of the teenagers that had never seen it.

LYDEN: But Carson Wagner says we shouldn't take that information at face value. He says ultimately, teenagers understand this information is coming from the government.

WAGNER: Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for because they'll begin to ask the question, well, from where is the influence coming?

LYDEN: And hopefully, they're also smart enough to know that taking drugs just isn't a good idea. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.