Do Anti-Drug PSAs Really Work?

Do Anti-Drug PSAs Really Work?

By Suzanne Kane

Some are amusing. Others are thought-provoking, aggravating or downright scary. But do the anti-drug public service announcements (PSAs) really work? The answer to this question depends on two factors: who you ask, and who the intended audience is.

Stoners Say PSAs Don’t Work

Stoners and those committed to perpetuating the drug culture mystique and lifestyle will undoubtedly deny that anti-drug PSAs have any effectiveness at all. Just look at any of the drug blogs and read through some of the comments about various anti-drug or anti-alcohol ads. They make fun of them. They point out how ludicrous they are, and comment that they’ll never change anybody’s mind, etc. Anyone who hangs out in such a forum is only looking for validation of their lifestyle, and will certainly condemn anything or anyone that threatens it. These drug aficionados may be so deep into their habit that they’re unreceptive to change at all. They may even make a living off drugs, drug paraphernalia, clothing, or other items that seek to glorify drugs and/or alcohol.

Research Says PSAs Are Effective

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, Monitoring the Future Study, and other sources, however, cite research that points out the effectiveness of anti-drug PSAs in targeting and reaching high sensation seeking young adults.

In a 1995 Director’s Report to the National Council on Drug Abuse, prevention research findings highlighted reaching at-risk populations in a mass media prevention campaign (PSAs). In a 5-month anti-drug PSA campaign targeting high sensation seeking young adults, data from several sources indicated success in reaching the target population with messages on drug prevention that motivated them to call a toll-free hotline for alternatives to drug use. Another study by the NIDA Prevention Research Center at the University of Kentucky found that the sensation value of programming in which PSAs are embedded is a critical factor in any drug prevention campaign. Another study by the Prevention Research Center found that anti-cocaine PSAs positively influenced the target audience. After viewing the PSAs, they were more likely to have more negative attitudes toward cocaine, less likelihood to use it and viewed the PSAs as effective.

A recent Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) report says that the vast majority of young people ages 12 to 17 (more than 20 million) are receiving drug and alcohol prevention messages via the media. Those who have been exposed to such messages are significantly less likely to abuse drugs.

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) reports that 83 percent of teens are viewing these anti-drug and anti-alcohol PSAs – and they are making an impact.

In its 20th annual teen study (2008 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study or PATS), the Partnership for a Drug-Free America found that teens indicate a strong correlation between increased exposure to anti-drug messages on television and a decreased likelihood of trying drugs over the past 10 years. The study findings show that 4 out of 10 teens (41 percent) agree that anti-drug messages made them more aware of the risks of using drugs and less likely to try drugs (42 percent). The Partnership for a Drug-Free America is an organization that seeks to empower parents to discuss drug use with their children.

Intended Audience for PSAs – A Determining Factor

While many of the original anti-drug PSAs sought to demonize drug and alcohol use, over time the televised ads have become cleverer and more thought-provoking. The intended audience has shifted, it seems, from the hard-core user (who probably is immune to such spots) to those more vulnerable to the high sensation seeking behavior that characterizes initial drug use. It also now includes parents of young people, since PATS research shows that teens who learn a lot about the risks of drugs at home are 50 percent less likely to use drugs. Educating parents is the key to having the parents able to communicate effectively with their children and teens about drug use and risks.

PSAs Earn Awards

Four drug-education public service ads from the Foundation for a Drug-Free World (FDFW) won the Bronze 2008 Addy Los Angeles competition for excellence in creativity and execution. The PSAs are part of the “They Said…They Lied” campaign that show teens led into tragedy because of teen drug buzz. The ads talk about drug myths and then debunk them, which causes the viewer to question what they know about drugs and whether their information is misguided. The series also won two Silver Telly Awards.

Repetition Counts

Bottom line: a single PSA probably won’t change anyone’s mind. But repetition of the message can be instrumental in helping to curb drug and alcohol abuse. The target audiences of young children (adolescents and teens) and their parents can only benefit from continued high-quality and informative anti-drug PSAs.

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