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Dopey Ads?: National anti-drug ad campaign might pique teens' interest in illicit drugs, researcher says


You’ve seen the commercial: A man points to a skillet on a stove and says, “This is drugs.” He cracks an egg and dumps the yolk into the hot skillet. As the egg begins to fry and sizzle, he concludes, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

This is one of dozens of bold and edgy anti-drug television ads that began airing in 1987 to curb rising drug use among teens.

Carson B Wagner demonstrates a device that measures response latency
Assistant Professor Carson B Wagner demonstrates a device that measures response latency to show the ‘Strength of Association.’

Photo: Marsha Miller

According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, illicit drug abuse costs the nation about $414 billion annually and takes close to 15,000 lives each year. Some studies suggest nearly half of all teens in the U.S. have tried illicit drugs.

With the government spending about $195 million annually to purchase airtime for anti-drug ads and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA)—a non-profit coalition of advertising, media and public relations professionals—securing more than $3 billion in donated media from broadcast, cable and radio networks since 1987, the anti-drug campaign is the largest and most expensive in history.

There’s a lot at stake. To validate the campaign messaging strategy and money being spent, a lot of research has been conducted to demonstrate the ads’ effectiveness. PDFA research findings show that anti-drug ads do connect with teens. The ads can be recalled and the knowledge they impart is recollected. And some studies even show a decrease in intention to use illicit drugs.

Differences That Make a Difference

However, Carson B Wagner, an assistant professor in the Department of Advertising at The University of Texas at Austin, contends that inadequate research measures are being used to evaluate the effectiveness of anti-drug ads and that more valid tests demonstrate that many anti-drug ads are having the wrong effects on teens, possibly increasing the likelihood for experimentation with drugs.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in graduate school was that the best kind of research reveals ‘differences that make a difference,’” says Wagner. “In other words, the more counterintuitive the research finding, the more value it has in the development of knowledge.”

This approach led Wagner to uncover the curiosity-arousing effects of anti-drug advertising.

“Years ago, I noticed that every time a news story was broadcast about illicit drug use among teens, a small epidemic would ensue,” says Wagner. “Logic instructs us that news programs and anti-drug ads showing drugs in a negative light should not lead people toward drugs.”

Years ago, I noticed that every time a news story was broadcast about illicit drug use among teens, a small epidemic would ensue. Logic instructs us that news programs and anti-drug ads showing drugs in a negative light should not lead people toward drugsAdding to this oddity was a 1999 study from the Institute for Social Research finding that—despite their enormous exposure to anti-drug ads—tracking studies revealed that adolescents’ perceived risk of illicit drugs had rapidly decreased and their drug use had sharply increased since 1991.

While there’d been a significant amount of research done about the ways popular media can encourage drug use through movies and music, there was very little research about the effects of anti-drug advertising. And the research that did was able to demonstrate that that drug attitudes became more negative as a result of anti-drug ads. However, theory and research on the psychology of curiosity suggested the opposite, and this nagged at Wagner.

Based on these observations, he hypothesized that teens exposed to anti-drug ads would express greater curiosity about illicit drugs compared to teens not exposed to the ads—a highly counterintuitive possibility. After proving his hypothesis in an experiment for his master’s thesis while at the Pennsylvania State University, Wagner found himself defending his thesis the day after Congress allotted $195 million per year to anti-drug ads.

The surprising research findings agitated many, and eventually, Congress requested that Wagner’s research be presented during its first review of anti-drug ad spending. Since then, a large government-sponsored survey examining the first five years of the anti-drug campaign uncovered similar findings.

In the meantime, Wagner has conducted further research on the effects of anti-drug ads on teens. His latest asserts there are better strategies to reduce drug use based, in part, on better research methods.

“The majority of the current anti-drug advertising research is flawed because it relies on research participants self-reporting their attitudes in response to watching anti-drug ads,” explains Wagner. “However, an immense body of research reveals that, due to their conspicuous nature, self-reported attitude measures are highly susceptible to social desirability, especially with regard to sensitive issues such as drugs.”

In other words, drugs and drug-use can be an uncomfortable topic, and in order to conform to social norms, research participants may intentionally—or unintentionally—misrepresent themselves when reporting their attitudes, resulting in exaggerated estimates of anti-drug ads’ effectiveness.

Measuring True Attitudes Toward Illicit Drugs

Unfortunately, when a teen is faced with a choice about drug use, the real-life situation may not lend itself to rational, deliberate decision-making. Often perhaps, such decisions are made in an environment, such as a party, packed with peer pressure. In circumstances like this, more often than not the decision can be made impulsively, and it’s often based on contextual cues: Is anyone else doing it? Are they enjoying it?

“When a situation forces someone to make a spontaneous decision, they will rely on their internal, automatic processes, or gut feelings, about drugs,” explains Wagner. “These associations stored in memory are called ‘Strength of Association’ or SOAs. It is these SOAs that take over when we make quick decisions or aren’t motivated to carefully think through the choice at hand. And we need to better understand how SOAs work in order to create more effective anti-drug ads. When a situation forces someone to make a spontaneous decision, they will rely on their internal, automatic processes, or gut feelings, about drugs. Dr. Carson Wagner

“Because of the social sensitivity associated with drugs, one of the most effective means to measure positive or negative attitudes is to use response latency measurements of SOA,” adds Wagner. “Rather than directly asking research participants to express their attitudes about drugs, response latency SOA measures allow researchers to gauge people’s attitudes without their direct knowledge, thereby yielding a more accurate measure of the research participant’s attitudes that better predicts behavioral decision-making under various conditions.”

This unobtrusive means of measuring attitudes was developed by psychologists in the 1970s, when self-report surveys began showing the widespread disappearance of prejudice, which was incongruent with other measures of prejudice in society, such as socioeconomic factors.

Essentially, response latency measurement involves recording the time it takes a research participant to categorize a positive or negative adjective after being primed with a certain concept—in this instance, illicit drugs. The more quickly the subject categorizes negative adjectives such as “bad” or “horrible,” as opposed to positive adjectives such as “good” or “wonderful,” the stronger and more negative their association with the idea of illicit drugs.

Armed with a less obvious method of capturing audience’s attitudes toward this sensitive topic, Wagner set out to compare the results of self-report questionnaires versus response latency measures and determine if different measurement methods would yield similar results.

One of Wagner’s earliest research experiments measured attitudes about drugs among teens who had watched a series of anti-drug ads produced by the PDFA. To gauge the persuasiveness of the ads, he used two different measures: self-report questionnaires where people reported their attitudes toward drugs on scales anchored by positive and negative adjectives, and response latency measures where people were instructed to categorize adjectives as quickly as possible.

The results showed that people who self-reported their attitudes after viewing the anti-drug ads expressed strong anti-drug sentiments, as opposed to the weaker anti-drug sentiments measured in the response latency tests after viewing the same anti-drug ads. These findings suggested that, compared to response latency measures, self-report measures exaggerated the effectiveness of anti-drug ads.

“The results of the self-report versus response latency measures have implications for the on-going self-report, survey-based research conducted by the Institute for Social Research’s Monitoring the Future studies, which are often used to evaluate the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Anti-Drug Media Campaign spearheaded by the PDFA,” says Wagner. “Based on these findings, the self-report surveys may have produced inflated claims of the ads’ effects,” he concludes.

Media Don’t Tell Us What To Think, They Tell Us What To Think About

Wagner’s most compelling finding based on more effective research methods has important implications for the strategy behind producing and distributing anti-drug ads. Experimentation demonstrated that the higher the motivation to watch an anti-drug ad—such as one that grabs your attention with an edgy, in-your-face message or runs during a prime, high-audience timeslot—the more positive the teens’ SOA toward drugs, meaning the more likely they would be to try drugs when faced with a choice.

Keeping drugs on youths' agendas by using hard-hitting ads keeps them thinking about drugs. Dr. Carson WagnerHe uncovered this finding after conducting two experimental sessions with four conditions using the same six anti-drug ads from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The experiment began with research participants receiving a brief introduction to the series of ads. For half of the participants, the introduction was designed to maximize motivation to watch the ads; for the other half, the introduction was geared to minimize attention. Half of the participants who received each introduction were asked to remember seven-digit phone numbers as they watched, simulating the kinds of non-advertising thoughts people often have during commercial breaks and further minimizing the amount of attention some participants could pay to the ads. After viewing the anti-drug commercials, participants’ SOA, along with several other ad-related responses, were measured.

Among the many findings, Wagner’s testing suggested that those who didn’t pay close attention to the ads—whether unmotivated, remembering seven-digit numbers, or both—showed significantly higher anti-drug SOA, while those who paid the most attention had the least anti-drug SOA. In other words, the more attention research participants paid to the anti-drug ads, the weaker their anti-drug SOA afterward, or the more open they were to the idea of drugs.

The study won the Top Faculty Paper award for the Communication Theory and Methodology Division of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the largest and oldest mass communication academic organization.

“Keeping drugs on youths’ agendas by using hard-hitting ads keeps them thinking about drugs,” says Wagner. “And those same ads can motivate people to pay attention, which can result in lower anti-drug SOA as compared to watching ads that don’t call attention.”

These findings are a critically important paradigm shift for anti-drug advertising.

A Paradigm Shift for Anti-Drug Advertising

“The conventional anti-drug advertising strategy has been to produce highly visible, attention-grabbing ads, most notably the campaign linking drug use and terrorism, and to place them at times when viewers are likely to be most attentive, for example, the Super Bowl,” adds Wagner. “Although this may be an effective political strategy, it’s less likely to achieve the goal of preventing illicit drug use.”

The mindset behind conventional anti-drug advertising strategy, he says, assumes that people make decisions rationally and deliberately. As a result, in order to persuade their audience, advertisers produce ads designed to grab the audience’s attention and make a compelling case against drug use so that viewers can use the arguments to protect themselves against offers of drugs. Wagner suggests that anti-drug advertisers consider not trying so hard to motivate viewers to pay close attention, as depicted in the ad that links drug use to terrorism.

Based on his work in measuring SOAs, Wagner suggests that anti-drug advertisers consider not trying so hard to motivate viewers to pay close attention, as depicted in the ad that links drug use to terrorism.

“Instead, they might devise creative techniques to keep the audience thinking unrelated thoughts as they watch the ads so as to limit the attention viewers pay to the specific drug-related arguments,” he says. “The more effective strategy is to simply keep making associations between drugs and negativity repeatedly so that audiences learn those associations as opposed to thinking about all the possibilities.”

He also suggests that ad buyers consider placing anti-drug ads at times when opportunity and motivation to watch are low, such as during TV shows with less consistent ratings, not those that have very dedicated audiences, such as the MTV wrestling matches and the TV programs “Friends” and “Alias.”

Wagner says the “What’s Your Anti-Drug?” campaign, featuring teens talking about the activities they pursue instead of drugs, is an excellent example of an ad not inadvertently arousing curiosity by limiting the focus on the anti-drug argument and keeping viewers focused on something else, in this case alternative activities, such as skateboarding.

Not surprisingly, Wagner’s research is starting to attract attention. Last year, Ogilvy & Mather, the agency involved in assessing the effectiveness of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, called on him to share his findings and discuss the implications for the campaign.

Wagner’s research highlights a need to rethink traditional assumptions about anti-drug ads, but further experimentation with these less conspicuous SOA measures is necessary to support such a contention and to offer alternatives, he says.

Wagner’s future research plans include developing response latency measures of curiosity that, similar to the SOA measures, would be less sensitive to the influence of social norms and therefore more accurately assess possible counterproductive effects of the ads.

Erin Geisler

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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