The Montana Meth Project has taken anti-drug advertising to an entirely new, and disturbing, level. They feature a teen beating up his mom, another being dumped at the ER by her “friends” and other audiovisual gems. They can be viewed here; be sure to check out the “bathtub” ad.
Certainly the ads are provocative, and in any study measuring their effectiveness they will definitely rank high in their ability to remain in viewers’ memories. But the real issue here is whether such advertising is effective at all.
The effectiveness of anti-drug advertising has been studied extensively, with mixed results. Carson Wagner of the University of Texas at Austin identified several shortcomings with the standard self-report methodology of ant-drug advertisement studies:
A proliferation of drug ad studies have demonstrated that these commercials affect our attitudes. But, the vast majority of this research has assessed self-reported attitudes, and due to their obtrusive nature, such measures have been shown to be highly susceptible to social desirability (see Watkins, 1996), demand characteristics (Orne, 1969; Watt & van de Berg, 1995, p. 256) and situational norm confounds (Dovidio &amp; Fazio, 1991; Fazio & Towles-Schwen, 1999). This is especially true when the measures concern sensitive topics such as illicit drugs (Carifio, 1994; Carifio & Biron, 1978; Tourangeau & Smith, 1996). When directly asking people to express their attitudes about drugs, we run the risk that responses are not indicative of the participants' genuine feelings, and so effectiveness demonstrations may be exaggerated. This is not to imagine simply that drug ad participants are lying. People can produce unfaithful responses both intentionally and unintentionally (Dovidio & Fazio, 1991). Certainly, individuals may knowingly hold a socially undesirable attitude (e.g., pro-drug) and purposefully respond in a way that doesn't match in order to deceive the researcher. However, they may unknowingly hold such an attitude and implicitly refuse to admit this to themselves, thereby answering questionnaires in such a way as to present "ideal" selves that reflect the ways they might like to be seen by others or by themselves. The appearance of an attitude where none exist can likewise be created when answering a questionnaire (Fazio, 1986; Fazio, Lenn, & Effrein, 1984), and such phenomena are decidedly unhelpful when attempting to examine drug ad effectiveness.So Wagner decided to use a different methodology, called “response latency.” This method doesn’t focus explicitly upon the participants’ attitudes, but the amount of time it takes for them to categorize certain adjectives (good, bad, etc.) after having been exposed to “attitude objects,” such as illegal drugs. This makes the participants unaware when, exactly, their attitudes are being assessed, making it much less likely that they can misreport their feelings either unconsciously or intentionally.
If the assumptions about direct attitude assessment vs. response latency are correct, then the former methodology would make anti-drug ads appear more effective, producing the very negative attitudes the producers of the ads are looking for.
The study is quite interesting, but there’s no need to quote it in full. Here is Wagner’s conclusion:
The results demonstrate that self-report measures can exaggerate theeffectiveness of anti-drug ads as compared to response latency measures. This supports H1, which was based on the notion that the heightened salience of anti-drug norms in drug ad research situations can influence participants' self-reported attitudes. This suggests that we cannot trust studies that gauge the effectiveness of anti-drug advertising – the very studies that are used to justify spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year in that type of advertising. In fact, aside from the actual costs incurred in making and airing these commercials, “[Partnership for a Drug Free America] has received more than $3 billion in donated media from a variety of sources, including the major television networks, 11 cable networks, 11 radio networks, more than 1000 newspapers, and more than 100 magazines and medical journals.” This from a study made in 1998, almost 10 years ago. Obviously the amount of donated media has increased since then.
Aside, then, from arguments about the legalization of marijuana or even other drugs we can see that our money is being wasted on over-the-top, ineffective advertising. I can’t imagine any way to measure this, but I believe whatever effectiveness anti-drug advertising and education may have is mitigated by the government’s obsession with marijuana. The claims made about marijuana use are generally undermined by most people’s experience with it. Anti-marijuana advertising is only slightly less hysterical than anti-meth or anti-crack ads. If people disbelieve anti-marijuana ads and education, then, they will be less inclined, I believe, to accept the claims about harder drugs such as meth. This is unfortunate, because meth really is as dangerous as the hype, and an effective strategy to curb its use is desperately needed.