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Study Shows Anti-Drug Ads May Be Ineffective

Posted - Jun. 1, 2004 at 2:40 p.m.



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HOUSTON -- Anti-drug ads, which the government plans to spend $145 million to produce this fiscal year, do little to dissuade young people from taking drugs, according to research conducted by psychology professors at Texas State University at San Marcos.

Even worse, the ads may actually prompt some teens to experiment with drugs -- a reaction diametrically opposite of what was intended by the White House Office of National Drug Policy.

The study, which researchers will present today at a meeting of the American Psychological Society in Chicago, is part of a larger, ongoing project sponsored by the Marijuana Policy Project, a national marijuana policy reform organization.

Researchers Harvey Ginsburg and Maria Czyzewska, of the Department of Psychology at Texas State University at San Marcos, said 53 college students were asked to watch several of the commercials and give detailed descriptions of the thoughts the ads generated.

Three of every four students reported the ads sparked thoughts that ran counter to the ads' message, the study showed.

"For example, in response to ads linking drug use to the war on terror, the most frequent unanticipated thoughts were that marijuana should be legalized, the war on drugs has been ineffective, and that marijuana users should grow their own," said Czyzewska.

The results did not surprise her: "There were already hints and indications that the ads were eliciting an unfavorable response," she said. "That not only were they not improving anti-drug attitudes, but are actually making young people have a more favorable attitude toward drugs." A national survey conducted in 2002 by Westat Inc. and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania for the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that most parents and youths surveyed recalled seeing the anti-drug ads, and that the ads had a favorable effect on parents.

But, the government-funded survey concluded, "There is little evidence of direct favorable campaign effects on youth." Czyzewska noted that the research conducted by her and Ginsburg was a psychological experiment, not a survey, and said the results bear out earlier indications that the anti-drug ad campaign is working counter to its aim.

"This is a classic example of the 'boomerang effect' that other researchers have warned about," Czyzewska said: "Commercials producing a response that is precisely the opposite of what the ads' creators intended." Bruce Mirken, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, said the research being presented today came as no surprise.

"A lot of data suggests these ads don't work," Mirken said, adding the government is spending "a lot of taxpayer money on what appears to be a boondoggle." Dr. Stuart Yudofsky, chairman of the psychiatry department at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at The Methodist Hospital, said he would not be surprised if the ads didn't work.

"I believe ads can help make a decision, like to buy a product," Yudofsky said. "But changing behavior is far more difficult." As for the ads having an opposite or boomerang effect, Yudofsky said he would have to look at the design of the study very carefully before agreeing: The ads "try to influence people to make a decision not to do something," he said. "That involves many, many parameters." Editor Notes:(For use by New York Times News Service clients.) (For use by New York Times News Service clients.)

c.2004 Houston Chronicle

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