The White House Office of National Drug Control Strategy's anti-drug media campaign is intended, at least ostensibly, to stop kids from using drugs. With the government spending about $200 million in taxpayer money annually and private enterprises kicking in a like amount, whether that campaign is working properly is a question worth asking. Now, once again, a researcher is suggesting that the campaign is having paradoxical effects.
Carson Wagner of the Department of Advertising at the University of Texas at Austin has conducted a number of experiments designed to test the impact of anti-drug ads using more sophisticated attitudinal measures than the self-reporting used in most research on the topic, the University of Texas announced this week.
"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," explained 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 his most recent work, he studied the impact of edgy, gripping ads, such as those linking drug use with terrorism, and found surprising results: The more exciting the ad, the more the kids thought about drugs. "Keeping drugs on youths' agendas by using hard-hitting ads keeps them thinking about drugs," said Wagner. "And those same ads can motivate people to pay attention, which can result in lower anti-drug [attitudinal scores] as compared to watching ads that don't call attention."
That 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, UT was proud to note
Based on his research, Wagner had some advice for anti-drug advertisers: Don't try so hard. "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."
No, but it makes great theater and provides many opportunities for parody.
Read an extensive feature article on Wagner and his work at http://www.utexas.edu/features/ online -- find the article in the archives when it is removed from the current feature page.