Advertising campaigns do little, if anything, to dissuade teenagers from using drugs

Expensive government advertising campaigns, which play an important part in the national drug strategy, do little, if anything, to dissuade teenagers from using drugs, according to a study by University of Florida researchers.

The study, which used a new method to examine the influence of anti-drug advertising, showed that although certain types of messages were found to be effective in changing young adults’ attitudes toward using illegal drugs, there are just as many being used that have no influence on teens’ thoughts and behavior, said Jon Morris, a UF advertising professor who presented the findings earlier this month at a Society of Biological Psychiatry conference in New York. Of four types of anti-drug messages currently in use, only one was found to have a significant effect on feelings against drug use.

“Previous studies have focused on cognitive responses to anti-drug ads, that is, what do you remember, what was the main message, do you believe the message? We have found that although these questions are important, questions about ‘affect’ feelings generated from the ad and towards the use of drugs are extremely important for diagnosis and evaluation of these communications,” Morris said. “We were able to look at the feelings about influencers - family, friends, teachers and self - and this was also revealing. With more research this direction could help make these communications more effective.”

Messages that showed and were tailored to thrill-seeking teenagers, who are attracted to competitive and active behavior, were found to be the most effective at changing the feelings and intentions of young adults regarding drug use, Morris said. This type of ad was more effective than those conveying negative or threatening images, he said.

The study also found that ads involving self-esteem and relationships with friends were related to feelings about drug use. Those that lowered self-esteem produced higher emotional responses toward drug use, while those displaying strong emotional bonds with friends lowered it, Morris said.

Anti-drug ads are a major tool in the nation’s anti-drug arsenal. In 1998, a Congressional act allocated $975 million to be spent between 1999 and 2002 to produce these messages, including television commercials, printed advertisements and billboards. Funds have since continued to be provided at a reduced level, with $150 million appropriated for the campaign last year.

Prompted by concerns raised by politicians and others about their effectiveness, Morris and three colleagues sought to determine just how well the ads were getting through to teens. For the study, they narrowed about a dozen anti-drug television public service announcements to the four that best represented each one of four different types: transformational, informational, sensational and provocative. The ads, all of which were funded by the U.S. government, were then showed to 150 university undergraduate communications majors.

The transformational type features a narrator explaining why people should not use drugs. The ad researchers used showed a collection of great plays with Yankees baseball player Derek Jeter saying he wouldn’t be able to perform such acts if he took drugs. Informational-type ads detail the physical consequences of taking drugs. The study used an ad showing a coroner reading the autopsy report of someone who died from a drug overdose. Provocative ads are designed to make a viewer think or to provoke emotion, such as the now-famous commercial showing an egg frying in a skillet, representing a person’s brain on drugs.

Sensational ads, which researchers found to be the most effective, show people who seek excitement, possess a certain skill and are experiencing a physical sensation. The study ad illustrating this type showed a teenager performing daring moves on a skateboard and then indicating that if he took drugs, he would be unable to accomplish his skill.

After being shown the four ads, participants filled out questionnaires in which they were asked to select a drawing that best represented their feelings about the ad. The pictorial representations measured on a nine-point scale various characteristics, such as pleasure, arousal and dominance.

The researchers found the sensational ad impacted all nine of these characteristics, and it was the only type that influenced participants’ behavioral intentions regarding drug use. The provocative ad affected all of the emotional dimensions but not behavior, while the transformational ad influenced a single emotion and the informational ad had no impact at all.

University of Kentucky communications Professor Philip Palmgreen, who has studied anti-drug public service announcements for 17 years, said that although public service announcements have become more effective in recent years, many still are not focused enough on sensation-seeking teens.

“A lot of these PSAs are just not effective,” he said. “High-sensation seekers just tune it out. It’s much better to show PSAs that show kids the same age or a little bit older that are credible that talk and act like high-sensation seekers. They need someone they can relate to and identify with. What they want to see is stories cut from real cloth that deal with people that are just like them where they’re involved in a credible, dramatic mini-story.”

Morris and his team plan to continue the research, focusing next on a large sample of middle school students, at whom most anti-drug messages are aimed because they are most at risk for trying drugs, he said.

“In this very preliminary study, it showed that there ought to be more research done on performance and ads that build self-confidence and good peer relations,” Morris said. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what we want to do.”

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