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Commentary: Does Anti-Drug Advertising Work?

By Merrie Spaeth, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

Should congress spend $1.4 billion on anti-drug advertising? The General Accounting Office just released a study that says the campaign isn't working. The White House says it is, and that a new campaign will be even more effective, that the new ads are tougher. No more "parents, the anti-drug." Now, we'll see pictures of people with rotted teeth from using meth.

Given how Congress is spending money, why not spend $1 billion plus on ads? We shouldn't because it creates the impression that we're having an impact, when we're not.

The anti-drug ads, which run on TV, billboards and in print, are just not reaching teenagers today. In fact, ads have limited effectiveness in general. We just came to that conclusion in Texas where we we've discovered that ads haven't helped enrollment in the CHIP program.

Part of the problem was the content of the ads. The slogan, "parents, the anti- drug," was singularly un-hip.

The greater problem is that kids aren't watching any ads. Have you looked at kids in front of a TV? They skip through the ads, text message each other on cell phones, and tap, tap on their computers.

If we really want to influence teenage drinking, we need to recognize that advertising isn't going to do it.

With all due respect to the Partnership for a Drug Free America, and they certainly mean well, teens are influenced by what other teens do, and by the importance of being cool, the availability of illegal substances, and yes, by fear.

Our schools are awash in drugs and alcohol, and no amount of advertising is going to counter that. The first thing to do is to get over being in denial. Right now, parents and schools, including some of Dallas' most prestigious schools, are in the "if we don't see it, it isn't happening" mode.

There are good programs, those which support their decision not to drink or use drugs. Chuck Norris has a marvelous program, "Kick Drugs out of America". From my own experience, and I have far more personal experience than I ever wanted to have, there needs to be on-campus support for kids who want to abstain from booze. For example, Texas Tech has the leading center for study of addiction in the country. Around it has grown a large community in recovery. The University makes rooms available on campus so kids can duck into A.A. meetings between classes and support each other.

Now, back to the $1.4 billion. Don't spend it on ads. I personally would rather not spend it at all. The unhappy truth is that not all problems can be solved by the Federal government spending money, particularly in a national, one-size-fits-all effort which is what the anti-drug ads were. But, since congress is addicted to spending, we might as well take advantage of America's entrepreneurial nature. Let individual schools compete for prize grants based on how much they have identified and then decreased alcohol and drug use. That would provide an incentive to take off the blinders, try initiatives and see what works.

And that would be worth advertising.

Merrie Spaeth is a communications consultant based in Dallas.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.