HOW ANTI-DRUG ADS MISSED THE MARK
Do you remember those terrible anti-drug PSAs? They said “drugs are for losers”, referenced a fried egg as “your brain on drugs” and presented an over-simplified, Pollyannaish drug policy of “just saying no!”. Although there may be a kernel of truth to these ads, for the most part, they are laughable and did little to actually reduce drug use.
Watching these ads felt like the equivalent of being lectured by my parents, which never worked in the first place. Telling me that drugs rot my brain all the time eventually gets me curious. This brings me to think – maybe we need a new approach?
THE SCARE TACTICS BACKFIRED
Illegal drug use slowed down temporarily, but by the time these fear-mongering PSAs completely saturated the airwaves in the early 1990s, drug abuse rates had doubled.
These campaigns did nothing to keep people out of trouble either. The government enforced harsher drug policies and our prison system grew to be the largest in the world. Since the 1980s, our prison population has increased roughly 790 percent and over half of inmates are sentenced for non-violent drug offenses.
What the advertisers didn’t take into account was how much there scare tactics sparked children’s curiosity. When we tell them to stay away from drugs, it makes them wonder “what are drugs like?” Showing them how dangerous drugs are only goes so far. Eventually, they are going to make their own decisions. Plus, showing them just how much drugs screw them up on TV can actually be pretty tempting.
A 2008 study found that participants who viewed anti-drug PSAs were even more curious about using drugs after watching them. Carson Wagner, assistant professor of Journalism at Ohio University and study author, warns that the traditional advertising practice of trying to grab the viewer’s attention at any cost, isn’t effective for reducing drug abuse.
Through years of a failed approach to drug prevention, advertisers are now moving towards a better approach.
AN EMPATHETIC APPROACH
Rather than focusing on scare tactics, advertisers now seek to create a sense of empathy with the viewer. This means talking with them, not at them about drugs.
Above the Influence campaign – United States
Rather than lecturing teenagers on the dangers of drug abuse, “Above the Influence” taps into their desire to be independent and rebel. It relates to the viewer, encourages them to think for themselves and look for more constructive ways to feel good about themselves.
A 2011 study found this campaign to be incrementally effective in deterring teenagers from trying marijuana. Michael Slater, lead researcher of the study, says, “It’s developmentally part of being a teenager to buck adult rules and take moderate risks.”
TALK TO FRANK – UNITED KINGDOM
12 years ago, a campaign aimed to change the way people about drugs. The “Talk to Frank” campaign emphasized a core message that “drugs are illegal, talking about them isn’t”. The purpose of this campaign is to provide a resource for teenagers to comfortably talk about drugs, not be scolded or judged.
“Talk to Frank” has proven to be very effective and has gained a large following in the UK. Since its launch in 2003, reports have shown that drug abuse among young people ages 16 to 24 fell roughly nine percent in the UK. The Frank helpline has received over 3.5 million callers and over 35.5 million website visitors.
CHANGE THE CONVERSATION
Drugs are simple, people aren’t. Even with heavy-hitting advertising campaigns, preventing teenagers from doing drugs is very complex. Regardless of how bad we say drugs are for them, they’re inevitably going to make their own decisions and it’s best we be there with an open ear.
Modern advertisers are taking this into consideration and creating far more effective ads which relate with the viewer, rather than just scaring the crap out of them.
By focusing on drugs as the sole problem, we miss the point – to help the individual. If we want future generations to make better decisions arounds drugs, we need to listen, not lecture.
Benjamin Creekmore with Morningside Recovery