Media Relations: media commentary and criticism

Thursday, September 07, 2006

media and society

-- media and society -- govt campaign encourages drug use

Now this? This is absolutely perfect.

A White House drug deal gone bad. By Ryan Grim - Slate Magazine

Posted Thursday, Sept. 7, 2006, at 7:44 AM ET

Since 1998, the federal government has spent more than $1.4 billion on an ad campaign aimed primarily at dissuading teens from using marijuana. You've seen the ads—high on pot, stoners commit a host of horrible acts, including running over a little girl on a bike at a drive-through. Or a kid lies in the hospital with his fist stuck in his mouth.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the arm of the federal government that funds research on drug abuse and addiction, partnered to study the ad campaign's effectiveness. The White House provided the funding and NIDA contracted with a research firm, Westat, which gathered data between November 1999 and June 2004. The report Westat produced cost the government $42.7 million. It shows that the ad campaign isn't working, as the Associated Press reported in late August. Instead of reducing the likelihood that kids would smoke marijuana, the ads increased it. Westat found that "greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana." More exposure to the ads led to higher rates of first-time drug use among certain groups, like 14- to 16-year-olds and white kids.

Five years and $43 million to show that a billion-dollar ad campaign doesn't work? That's bad. But perhaps worse, and as yet unreported, NIDA and the White House drug office sat on the Westat report for a year and a half beginning in early 2005—while spending $220 million on the anti-marijuana ads in fiscal years 2005 and 2006....So far, at least, it appears to be pretty much impossible to warn kids away from drugs with an ad campaign, no matter how cautious or nuanced an approach you take. Talking about drugs seems to give enough kids the idea of trying them that drug education efforts regularly backfire....

I realize that the emphasis in the article is that the government sat on the data indicating that the ads were really, impressively not working. And, yes, that would be appalling if we weren't used to appalling things from this administration; sitting on unfavorable scientific reports is a mere bagatelle against some of the ridiculous things this administration has done in the name of science.

No, what gets me isn't just that the government sat on the results and spent money in the full knowledge that it wouldn't achieve the stated goals. (Since the actual goal was to be seen to be tough on drugs, I would say that counts as "Mission Accomplished", wouldn't you?) What gets me is that the results show that exposure to the government campaign encouraged drug use. I understand that advertising sometimes works in mysterious and profound ways, but this is just ridiculous.

Now, to be sure, I have a sneaky suspicion that there's a certain amount of causation/correlation confounding here. Whether it's in the original study, or merely in the way this article reports the study, I can't tell. It does seem most likely that it just happens that people who were more aware of the ads happened to use drugs more; it seems profoundly unlikely that any ad campaign would lead to drug use. (I realize that teenagers are pre-programmed to think that anything that adults/the government doesn't want you to do must be terribly cool, but seriously. THOSE ads encouraged teens to use drugs? Those were some of the stupidest ads I've ever seen; I can't see how they'd encourage you to do anything either way.)

Even allowing that drug education efforts encourage kids to try them, I wonder if perhaps it might not be the way we discuss drugs that has this effect. To compare: European states generally have more specific, detailed and comprehensive sex education than the US. Studies indicate that European states with such education programs have teens who have sex later, and are better prepared in terms of contraception and preventing STDs, than US teens. (To be sure, European countries also have social states that fund a lot of the contraceptive devices that teens would use, and we don't, and no doubt that also has an effect.) It would be interesting to see how Europe handles this issue, and to see if it correlates with lower rates of drug use among teens in Europe. It would be difficult to test, of course, because the laws are also different; you could not, for example, compare marijuana use in the Netherlands and the US in any useful way because it's legal and far easier to obtain there.

But still. Can you not imagine the sound byte: "Government drug education efforts encourage children to use drugs. News at 10."

Posted by iain at 10:15 AM in category media and society , television


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