The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP (http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) is giving up on its controversial and widely ridiculed ad campaign seeking to link drug use with terrorism. The ads, which blamed drug users -- not the black market profits generated by prohibition -- for funding terrorists, began running in the wake of the 2001 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The last ads in the series will run next month, according to a Tuesday report in the industry journal Ad Age.
The magazine also reported that ONDCP will stop producing a "polarizing" annual study of the anti-drug ad campaign's effectiveness. Those studies have found that the drug czar's ads were not working and may even be counterproductive. The most recent study, produced by the research firm Westat and the Annenberg School for Communication, noted that "there is little evidence of direct favorable campaign effects on youth," but there is evidence "for an unfavorable delayed effect... on subsequent intentions to use marijuana, and these are found for the entire youth sample." In other words, kids who watch the drug-terror ads may be more likely to later use marijuana than those who don't.
"I guess that's one way to get rid of bad evaluations," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project, which has made ONDCP political campaigns a target for legal challenges (http://www.mpp.org/WarOnDrugCzar/). "Talk about shooting the messenger," he told DRCNet. "I think this also demonstrates that the ad campaign was never about educating kids, but about reaching grown-ups for political reasons."
"This means those drugs-and-terror ads didn't achieve their stated purpose -- to stop kids from using drugs," said Kevin Zeese, executive director of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org). "They did, however, very effectively tie the drug war to the war on terrorism in the public mind, and in that sense they have accomplished their mission," he told DRCNet. "This was never about an effective prevention message."
The drugs-and-terror ads had been controversial even within the prohibitionist community, with anti-drug ad stalwarts the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (http://www.drugfreeamerica.org), who have produced almost all of the ONDCP's anti-drug ads, refusing to work on the drug-terror connection ads. PDFA called the ads "off strategy," and PDFA vice-chairman Allen Rosenshine strongly criticized the campaign in an appearance before Congress. Instead, the ads were produced by ONDCP's own ad agency, Ogilvy & Mather, which was awarded a renewable $762 million contract to produce more ads last July despite drug czar John Walters' admission that earlier Ogilvy ads had been ineffective and despite Ogilvy having to repay the federal government $1.8 million for over-billing it in the earlier phases of the ad campaign.
Congress has responded by whittling away at funds for the anti-drug media campaign. While budgeted for $185 million last year, funding for the program was lowered to $150 million this fiscal year. That's a move in the right direction, but does not go far enough, said critics. "This is a boondoggle that does more harm than good," said Mirken. "Young people see through these lies, and then when they see warnings about harder drugs, they will ignore those, too. The end result will be dead kids. While it is encouraging to see the program cut this year, it should be funded at an appropriate level, which would be zero."
CSDP's Zeese agreed. "The whole thing is a waste of money and shouldn't be funded at all. Congress should cut this to the bone," he said. "But what is really significant is that now the program will not be effectively evaluated. They are going to spend $150 million this year without any way of evaluating how effective it is? That's crazy."
Don't tell that to congressional drug fighters. They don't want to hear it. Instead, program proponents like Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), chairman of the House Government Reform panel, and Rep. Rob Portman (R-OH) are planning to introduce legislation to continue the anti-drug propaganda campaign. According to Ad Age, that legislation could attempt to tighten congressional controls over the program by limiting the drug czar's ability to go outside the PFDA for its ads and by requiring that Ogilvy's contract be rebid. But the congressional drug fighters are determined that the ads continue, despite their unproven effectiveness.