Further Reading

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 30, 2006.

I Know – Let’s Really Scare Kids About Drugs!

Stanton Peele


In an episode of South Park (“My Future Self n' Me”), Stan’s parents hire Motivation Corp. to discourage Stan from using drugs. The Corp. employs an actor to come to live with Stan’s family. The actor pretends to be Stan in the future after he has ruined his life by taking drugs and drinking. Now that’s an anti-drug program!

Watch out – Motivation Corp. may be coming near you soon. In March of this year, a group of television ads to counter Montana’s growing methamphetamine problem were launched. Aimed at children 12-17 years old, the ads present horrifying pictures of what happens to kids who use drugs. According to one publication, “Finally, someone in the ads production business has come through with a campaign that not only fulfills the goal of reaching their target audience, but also leaves an indelible impression on anyone who views what they have produced.” (See these ads at www.montanameth.org.)

But there have been harrowing anti-drug ad campaigns previously. In fact, they have rarely been absent from U.S. television.

You may recall the famous egg and frying pan ad, “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” This was created as part of a series begun in 1987 by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America — a non-profit coalition of advertising, media, and public relations professionals. The Partnership was given $200 million annually by the federal government. Media outlets contributed over $3 billion in free television time, making it the largest and most expensive anti-drug campaign ever.

However, the Institute for Social Research’s tracking study of teen drug use discovered that, despite their enormous exposure to such anti-drug ads, beginning in 1991, adolescents’ perceived risk of using drugs declined and drug use rose sharply. Support for the Partnership predictably waned.

To counteract the growth in drug use, in 1998 Bill Clinton and his drug czar, General Barry McCaffrey, announced a five year, $2 billion ad campaign. According to the Christian Science Monitor, “ It's the largest media blitz ever undertaken by the federal government.  And antidrug ads like these will be hard to forget.” They included bugs crawling all over a teenage boy (a hallucination brought on by methamphetamines) and an ad you may recall depicting a girl demolishing her kitchen with a frying pan.

The government agency charged with research and science concerning drugs – the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) – commissioned a study of the effectiveness of this campaign over the period from September 1999 through June 2003. The study found the campaign had no effect on children, although parents were highly favorable towards it.

The study found something even more surprising: “there were no significant reductions in marijuana use either leading up to or after the marijuana campaign for youth 12 to 18 years old between 2002 and 2003. Indeed there was evidence for an increase in past month and past year use among the target audience of 14- to 16-year-olds.”

Actually, years of systematic research have repeatedly found that intensely negative anti-drug messages are ineffective, and any changes measured in response to them are more likely to be in the direction of greater drug use. The mechanism to account for this “rebound” effect is that the exaggerations and drama of such messages turn children off, so that they reject anti-drug warnings entirely.

I witnessed several network and cable news shows on which the developers of the current campaign in Montana were interviewed. The programs were all highly favorable to the media backgrounds of these men. On no program that I saw was a drug prevention researcher interviewed.

If only they would have asked me to participate! I would have asked, “Did you and your colleagues examine the research on the effectiveness of drug prevention programs and media campaigns?”

Imagine if they answered “no” – the only answer I could anticipate. What arrogance and disrespect for research and the children the ads are supposed to reach!

Now that’s a news story – a highly funded, popular, and critically acclaimed program initiated with much media ballyhoo causes drug use.