Challenging Dogma

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The 2003 Anti-Marijuana Television Campaign Targeting Teens Failed to be Effective Due to Poor Communication Tactics – Emma Smith

The U.S. government’s Office of National Drug Control Policy anti-drug media campaign included anti-marijuana television public service announcements. The overall media campaign targeting marijuana use has reached a budget of over 2 billion dollars since 1998 (10). This large amount of taxpayer dollars has been used in a campaign that has had almost no success (2-6, 10). Numerous government evaluations of the anti-marijuana media campaign have shown the advertisements to be ineffective in reducing drug use among teens. Two of the five studies concluded that the ads might actually lead to an increase in teen use of marijuana (10). The television campaign failed as a result of its rational model basis which fails to address social and cultural factors and its fear-arousal communication technique which is an inappropriate tactic for the anti-marijuana message.

The limits of Fear-Arousing Communication and Rational Models
Fear-arousing communication is a common tactic of public service ads.(1) Although this style of communication can have positive effects on its audience, without proper planning and research of the target audience, it will fail to be effective. The 2003 anti-marijuana television campaign demonstrated a boomerang effect where the intended goal to decrease marijuana use among teens was not achieved and to the contrary, positive attitudes toward drug use developed among the viewers (2-6, 10).

The group of advertisements that bombarded the television in 2003 aimed to trigger fear of the effects of marijuana. Significant studies have been conducted that have unveiled a series of adverse health affects of marijuana. Marijuana can be addictive, it can cause lung cancer, it can be a gateway drug, it can lead to reduced mental performance, it can also reduce physical performance and it can impair judgment (7). These findings were demonstrated in the television ads varying in subject. Each ad conveyed a different consequence of using marijuana. One ad, for example, began with a girl sitting on the edge of a bathtub crying while her mother holds a positive pregnancy test. The father appears and receives the bad news, followed by a narrator who says, “Smoking marijuana impairs your judgment. It's more harmful than we all thought." Another ad depicts a group of boys that are ordering fast food at a drive thru and run over a small child on their bike. In another, a girl forgets about the child she was babysitting and you, the viewer, are led to believe the child drowns in the pool. A sarcastic narrator says, “Just tell her parents you were busy getting high.” Another ad proposed that marijuana is funding terrorists. The narrator asks, "Where do terrorists get their money?" and after a pause states, "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

The television campaign also has some basis in the Health Belief Model and the Theory of Reasoned Action. They are both considered a rational model because they assume that our behavior is determined through a logical thought process (6). This basis is very limiting and does not account for variance in behaviors due to attitudes, beliefs, and overall cultural differences (11). Marijuana use is heavily correlated with attitudes toward drug use which are not based upon rational thinking. Attitudes are developed throughout time and are affected my multiple factors including role-models, peers, guardians, and personal experiences (12). The messages communicated in the ads fail to address the preexisting attitudes and simply present possible outcomes of marijuana use (8). Teens that view the ads don’t typically receive the message of potential risk factors involved in marijuana use. The fear elicited in most of the ads overrides the actual message. If a teen learns that marijuana can lead to bad judgment or slower reaction time, this does not mean that they would act accordingly. The decision to smoke marijuana is not solely based on knowledge.

The advertisements ranged in the intensity of fear that they triggered. Depending on one’s personal experience, the interpretation of the ad would have a wide range. One teen may be overwhelmed with fear based on no previous experience with marijuana and will “shut down”, unable to think rationally about the issue (1). Another teen may see the ad and have a feeling of rebellion because the ad is so abstract from their own knowledge of marijuana that it seems like a total lie (11).The horrific situations demonstrated in the ads have typically shown to be so different from viewers’ personal experiences that they result in rebellious attitudes, consequently producing this boomerang effect where teens gain more favorable attitudes toward marijuana use. (7) The report, "Evaluation of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, 2003 Report of Findings," declares, "There is little evidence of direct favorable Campaign effects on youth, either for the Marijuana Initiative period or for the Campaign as a whole (3). From 2000 to 2003, marijuana use increased amongst 14 to 16 year olds, the primary target audience (3).

There are many factors involved in a teenager’s decision to use drugs. The public service ads that are based upon rational models fail to address cultural differences, socioeconomic status, social environment and individual personality traits. Fear-arousal tactics fail due to being unrealistic about a drug that is the most commonly used drug in this country and in many ways is widely accepted (7). Fear-arousal is not appropriate for a substance that is so familiar to the masses; children already have a preconceived notion of marijuana through the attitudes shared within their culture along with personal experiences. The 2003 anti-marijuana campaign failed to address these factors.

Reframing the Message
The ads proposed the horrific potential outcomes of marijuana use without addressing other issues that play important roles in teen marijuana use. The message is very drastic and proved to be ineffective (2-7). The ads give no recommendations in acting in healthier ways and in avoiding the situations where marijuana is available. The message that if you use marijuana you will become pregnant or kill a child is nowhere near the realistic realm of consequences following marijuana use (10). It develops into a rebellious attitude where the teen feels that they are being lied to. This feeling results in the teen wanting to rebel (10). The distrust of these public service messages can carry over into other public service announcements such as anti-heroin and other illegal drugs with more health dangers than marijuana. Adolescence is a very impressionable time and this distrust of public health can be detrimental to future efforts of the public health community.

There are a variety of surveys and studies that research the spread of drug use in America. It is undeniable that marijuana is the most commonly used illegal drug. In 2005 a Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance study, 38.4% of high school students reported using marijuana at some point in their lifetimes and that 20.2% of students surveyed in 2005 reported current (past month) use of marijuana (7).

Presenting teens with the gateway effects of marijuana has been shown to be ineffective. The gateway argument was contradicted by adolescents’ immediate experience where their own marijuana use did not lead to the use of stronger drugs (11).

Focus groups have been shown to be very important in the research of developing effective framing of the message. The message when trying to avoid dangerous unhealthy behavior is to emphasize the gains (1). The targeted audience is young and healthy; the point is to keep them this way. The potential harm that marijuana can lead to is what we are trying to avoid. Framing the message around what they will gain by avoiding marijuana is a message that is currently becoming more popular in the current campaign adds. The message is no longer based upon fear-arousal. New ads that were created in 2007 involve ads that show peers who are boring and not productive. One ad shows three boys who are sitting on a couch while different social scenes flash on screen such as an ice rink, a skate park and the movies. One boy describes weed as the safe thing to do because nothing ever happens when you’re high, at the end of the ad he leaves his two friends sitting on the couch saying, “I’d rather take my chances out there.” The message presents the viewer with fun social situations that one would miss by smoking marijuana. It’s not about what negative things will happen to you if you smoke marijuana, it is about what fun things you could do instead.

Social change, reinforcing anti-marijuana television ads
The development of attitudes in teens is multifactorial. Role models indisputably are one of the most influential factors (1). Major role models include parents whose behaviors are then enforced or challenged through exposure to other role models, such as other adults and the media. Research studies conducted to determine the effects of parental drug use on their child’s drug habits were analyzed. ‘Parental use of other drugs significantly predicted child marijuana use. Likewise there is a very strong significant path from child marijuana attitudes to child marijuana use which is the strongest path in a model based upon the research. The next strongest path was determined to be parental attitude toward marijuana and the child’s attitude. The baby boomer age cohort is of the age group with a more favorable attitude towards marijuana use than other cohorts (8). It is clear that the effort to reduce marijuana use is a huge challenge on numerous levels.
Ads need to be reinforced through community programs. A total social change must occur in order for significant change to occur in our adolescents. The positive attitude toward marijuana that is prevalent among the baby boomer age (8) is a major obstacle in community efforts. This does not mean that parents want their children to smoke marijuana but it is difficult to make it a focus when there are so many other pressures in an adolescents life viewed as more detrimental, such as alcohol, unsafe sex, and tobacco. Sex education, anti-smoking such as DARE programs and other such programs are common within public schools. Marijuana has a role in these educational programs but is not a main focus. There are no programs funded by the federal government that targets marijuana other than the media campaign. If the government really wants to reduce marijuana use then it is necessary to conjunct these media campaigns with community interventions. Involving parents and adolescents would be beneficial to community development and would help reduce marijuana use. The billions of dollars spent on a media campaign that has no reinforcement is a waste of tax payer dollars.

The anti-marijuana campaign continues into 2007 demonstrating new communication tactics that appear to be more effective. The 2005 study revealed that marijuana use among high school students has decreased to 20 % from 27 % in 1999 (7). Some ads have proven to be beneficial when they are targeting high-sensation seekers. Researchers have done extensive research on these two categories of personality types and the prevalence of drug use among these personality types (9). From this research the ads can be targeted differently addressing issues among demographics that have shown more effects in changing attitudes toward marijuana use (9). It is not to say that these ads have abandoned their old tricks of fear-arousal techniques. For example, one of their newest ads depicts a girl finding herself passed out on a stranger’s couch in the middle of a party after vomiting. After retracing the events of the day she realized it had started with her trying marijuana for the first time. In another ad, a boy misses his swim meet and lets down his relay race members because he was, “getting high”. These scenarios, similar to the 2003 campaign, are using the fear tactic without addressing any alternatives. Research is still crucial in the evolving development of advertisements that will yield the most positive effects.

Marijuana is a hot legal topic. The decriminalization of marijuana possession and legalizing marijuana for medicinal uses are on the forefront of courts across the country. The legislation is not a focus of Public Health. As long as marijuana is illegal and has proven to have adverse health affects as well as being linked to dangerous behaviors (7), it is a necessary target. To reduce marijuana use among teens, focus groups and in depth research must be conducted in conjunction with community interventions.

The anti-marijuana television campaign did not achieve any goal objectives; there was no significant decrease in marijuana use among teens nor did it create negative attitudes toward marijuana (2-6, 10). Despite the failure of the past anti-marijuana campaign, the federal government continues to fund public health anti-marijuana efforts and it is the responsibility of all organizations involved to efficiently use this money to yield the best results possible. Social realities along with cultural influence need to be addressed in both public service ads and community programs.

1. Aronson, E., Wilson, T, Akert, R. Prevention; Improving Health Habits (pp499-502) In:, Aronson, E., Wilson, T, Akert, R. Social Psychology, fifth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson Prentice Hall. 2005
2. Yzer, M. C., Capella, M. F., Hornik, R., Ahern, R. K. The Effectiveness of Gateway Communications in Anti-Marijuana Campaigns. Journal of Health Communication. 2003, 8:129-143
3. Anti-Marijuana Ads Failed, Independent Evaluation Reports, Marijuana Use Up Among Target Audience
4. Czyzeweska, M, Ginsburg, H. J.. Explicit and implicit effects of anti-marijuana and anti-tobacco TV advertisements. Addictive Behaviors. 2006article in press 1-13
5. Association for Psychological Science, News Release; New Study: "Anti-Marijuana Ads Still Boomerang" Los Angelas, CA; Association for Psychological Science
6. Salazar, K. M. Comparison of Four Behavioral Theories. AAOHN Journal. 1991, 39:306-313
7. Office of National Drug Control Policy, Drug Facts; Marijuana Overview, Office of National Drug Control Policy.
8. Kandel, D. B., Griesler, P. C., Lee, G. Davies, M et al. Parental Influences on Adolescent Marijuana Use and the Baby Boom Generation; Findings from 1979-1996 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse. Analytic Series
9. Palmgree, P, Donohew, L, Lorch, E P, et al. Television campaigns and adolescent marijuana use: sensation seeking targeting. American Journal of Public Health. 2001; 91(2); 292-296
10. Bateman, J. W. Boomerang Effect; Anti-Marijuana Ads May Lead to Marijuana Use. Globe, Salt Lake Community College. 2006
11. Yzer, M.C., Cappella, J.N., Fishbein, M., Hornik, R. and Ahern, R.K. The Effectiveness of Gateway Communications in Anti-Marijuana Campaigns. Journal of Health Communication: International Perspectives 2003. 8;129

12. Kosterman, R, Hawkins, J. D., Guo, J, Catalano, R. F., Abbott, R. D., The dynamics of alcohol and marijuana initiation; patterns and predictors of first use in adolescents. 2000, American Journal of Public Health, 90(3); 369-366

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