Anti-Drug Anxiety

Trouble at the propaganda mill


The alliance that has brought us screaming lectures from a frying pan-wielding model and murder confessions from innocent-looking coke sniffers is showing signs of stress. In May a study finding that such propaganda has not reduced teenagers' drug use prompted sniping between the drug warriors who commission the messages and the admen who create them.

"These ads aren't having an impact on teenagers," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). "We've spent millions on these ads, and we are not seeing a return on the investment." Actually, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, launched five years ago, has cost nearly $1 billion in taxpayers' money, plus another $1 billion or so in donated airtime.

That budget has made the ads highly visible, and a study sponsored by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 70 percent of teenagers reported seeing them at least once a week. But the teenagers who recalled the most ads were just as likely to use drugs as the other subjects.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which produces the spots, complained that the ONDCP was accentuating the negative by focusing on this result. Although "there is little evidence of direct favorable campaign effects on youth," the partnership said, "the media campaign appears to be having a positive effect on parents." It was an odd thing to brag about, since the government is nagging parents in the hope that they will stop their kids from using drugs, and the study found no evidence that they had succeeded in doing so.

The admen and the drug warriors did agree on one thing: The campaign's failure should be rewarded with more money.