Most of us are familiar with anti-drug ads on TV. From the “brain on drugs” commercials of the 1980s to more recent commercials like the “above the influence” campaign, the federal government and nonprofits have spent millions of dollars on ads trying to convince kids to stay away from drugs. Last year, when President Trump declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency, he promised “Really tough, really big, really great advertising, so we can get to people before they start.” Are these anti-drug ads really effective?

Researchers have been studying the effects of these ads since shortly after they began in the early 1980s with Nancy Reagan’s “Just say no” campaign. What they’ve found so far is a mixed bag. It appears the early commercials didn’t work at all, and may have actually made things worse. The main problem appears to be that the ads were essentially made for adults, and perhaps also to appeal to the congressmen who controlled the funding for the ads. However, what motivates responsible adults can be very different from what motivates teens. Many teens simply found these commercials absurd or hysterical, such as the “brain on drugs” commercial in which the woman smashes up the whole kitchen with a frying pan.

Even worse, these commercials sometimes piqued the curiosity of the teens they were trying to dissuade. Teens are naturally curious anyway and a stern warning from the TV is a good way to ensure at least some teens try drugs at the first opportunity, just to find out what all the fuss is about. What’s more, teens are often rebellious. If they feel like drugs are something their parents and teachers would disapprove of, it might be an effective way to assert their independence.

The newer, “Above the influence” ads seem to fare a little better than the ads of the 1980s and ‘90s precisely because they consider the difference in the teen perspective. The newer ads recognize that individuality and autonomy are important to teens and they emphasize how drugs diminish your freedom and make you boring. This was also an effective approach for teen anti-smoking ads, which suggested that not smoking was like taking a stand against corporate manipulation. One study found that about 12 percent of teens who hadn’t seen the “Above the influence” ads starting smoking marijuana, while only eight percent of teens who had seen the ads did. That’s a pretty significant difference, although there may be confounding factors.

While it does appear that anti-drug ads can be effective to some degree, they should probably be considered a secondary tool. Not only do teens remain skeptical of authority, even authority that speaks their language, but their media habits change quickly. They watch less TV and see frewer ads, and they have to be reached through different avenues. What’s more, programs that promote mental health and emotional regulation have a much broader impact and appear to be more effective in keeping experimentation from turning into a substance use disorder.

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