Do ads get teens to just say no?

Robert Hornik

Robert Hornik is putting anti-drug ads under the magnifying glass.

Photo by Candace diCarlo

This is your brain.

This is your brain on anti-drug ads.

Any questions?

Yes. You in the back there.

But do these anti-drug ads really work?

“We do see that [the anti-drug ad campaign] has a positive effect on parents,” said Robert Hornik, professor of communication in the Annenberg School. “We don’t have any evidence that it’s affecting kids yet.”

Hornik is one of two researchers heading an ongoing study of whether the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s latest advertising campaign—not the one that opened this story—is succeeding in reducing drug use among youth. The study, conducted by the Annenberg School under contract to Westat, a Maryland research firm, was mandated by Congress as part of 1998 legislation that funded the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.

The campaign, which began in 1999, differs from previous anti-drug ad campaigns in its use of paid advertising. “The Partnership had been successful getting a lot of free media in the 1980s,” Hornik said, and during that time, drug use among teens also declined sharply.

But, he said, “around the time Clinton took office, drug use began to climb upward. And the Partnership also began to have less success in getting free air time.” This led Congress to approve a $1 billion, five-year ad campaign aimed at driving teen drug use back down.

“This was the first time Congress had spent significant money on public-health advertising,” he said.

And with funding comes accountability. No studies had been done on the effectiveness of earlier anti-drug ad campaigns, so Congress insisted that the campaign it funded include ongoing research to evaluate its effectiveness.

Hornik and his research team released the third of seven semi-annual reports on the campaign in October. This report showed that both parents and teens had plenty of exposure to the campaign’s ads and could recall the campaign’s “the anti-drug” theme—as in “parents: the anti-drug,” “truth: the anti-drug” or, for the kids themselves, “what’s your anti-drug?” Parents surveyed also stated that they were more engaged with their children as a result of the ads.

This, Hornik said, was potentially encouraging. “We know that parents who monitor their kids’ behavior have kids who use drugs less,” he said.

However, the study found no evidence that the ads aimed at youth have led to changed behavior among teens.

Hornik did note that the current ad campaign operates in a different media climate from that of the 1980s, when the legendary “this is your brain on drugs” spot aired. For one thing, drug use is not the hot-button topic it was when Nancy Reagan was telling the youth of America to just say no. And to make matters worse, he said, media coverage of drugs “disappeared” after the Sept. 11 attacks.

But we shouldn’t jump to conclusions based on these findings or the changed climate, he said. The current ad campaign began only a year ago, which is too recent to discern any long-term effects. “There may be other effects that we will pick up later,” he said.

Originally published on January 24, 2002