Your Tax Dollars at Work: Building a Better Boomerang


A new study in the journal Addictive Behaviors provides further evidence that the federal government's anti-drug ads have a boomerang effect, making drug use more rather than less likely. The researchers showed two randomly chosen groups of college freshmen science programming interspersed either with anti-tobacco ads or with anti-marijuana ads, then gave them questionnaires designed to measure their attitudes and intentions regarding marijuana. "The group exposed to anti-marijuana [ads] shows significantly less negative attitudes [toward] marijuana…than the group exposed to anti-tobacco ads, while controlling for differences in preexisting attitudes," they report. "The same pattern of differences in the opposite than intended direction emerged from responses to questions about the intention to use marijuana."

While an exercise designed to measure "implicit attitudes" showed movement in the intended direction, the researchers say the practical significance of that measure is unclear, since it "can be sensitive to the associations a person has been exposed to in his/her environment…but this knowledge does not necessarily reflect personal endorsement." As for why teenagers might be more favorably inclined toward pot after watching the government's anti-pot ads, the authors note:

If the persuasive communication evokes disagreement with the content of the message, it provokes a recipient to generate counterarguments…A boomerang effect in response to persuasion is increased when the message is perceived as weak [or] inconsistent with prior knowledge, and when the source's credibility is suspect….Past anti-drug media campaigns in the U.S. have been criticized for exaggerated use of fear-based arguments and some factual inaccuracies, practices that some researchers warned might backfire by reinforcing attitudes opposite to [those] intended by the campaigns' creators.

[via NORML]

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  1. Apparently Bastiat’s statement, “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended,” applies to bad causes too.

  2. test

  3. My main concern regarding ludicrous government antidrug ads and in general, and simply inaccurate propaganda in general, is when they overplay the downside to using essentially harmless drugs like pot. When people who use pot, or people who know others who use pot, listen to such messages what they come away with is the notion that the government is lting about these drugs, and it makes them wonder what other drugs the government is lying about.

    Sadly, there are indeed illegal drugs with very real dramatic harm potential, and this undercuts the government’s “education” efforsts towards these “hard” drugs and consequently leads to greater usage of these drugs than otherwise would have been the case if the government hadn’t been so clearly lying about “soft” drugs.

  4. Yeah, but those meth ads are pretty good. C’mon, admit it.

  5. I am not going to blow thirty bucks on the complete article, but the abstract is more ambiguous than you believe. It may, indeed, mean what you say it does, but it also may mean that anti-marijuana attitudes increased less than did anti-tobacco ones, not that anti-marijuana attitudes decreased. If the latter is the case, there was no backlash.

  6. Bleepless, I did blow $30 on the full text of the study, and the main finding is clear, although the authors’ prose sometimes is not: Subjects who watched the anti-pot ads reported a more positive attitude toward marijuana and a greater inclination to use it afterward than they did at the outset of the study. (These changes were not seen in the subjects who watched the anti-tobacco ads.) Hence the researchers conclude, “It appears that in our study, a sample of anti-marijuana [PSAs] used in [a] national anti-drug campaign in the U.S. produced immediate effects opposite to [those] intended.”

  7. So our government is supposed to buying two-by-fours; instead they’re buying boomerangs.
    No different than gold-plated toilet seats.

  8. But advertising always works, doesn’t it? We’re helpless drones incapable of having our own thoughts, aren’t we? Damn it, I have to read my Chomsky again.

  9. This whole thread makes me want to burn on eright now.

  10. This whole thread makes me want to burn one right now.

  11. I can recall anti-drug PSAs from the past that were unintentionally hilarious, which I’m guessing would also undercut the intended outcome and possibly lead to a boomerang effect. I know they made me feel kinda affectionate towards drugs.

    In one, a couple of early-20s stoners were smoking pot and having inane conversation in what was clearly one of their high school bedrooms. Then, Mom came to the door and yelled something about a job interview. They sat on the bed like lumps and a voiceover intoned, “Marijauna: it can make you do nothing too.”

    It wasn’t overwraught like the eggs as brains PSA, but then again it wasn’t annoying either — it just made me laugh out loud the first time I saw it. Repeated viewings gave me the giggles even when sober. I’d love to see that thing again.

  12. BTW, boomerangs as toys were briefly popular when I was a little kid. I hear they may be making a comeback.

  13. Stevo Darkly,
    You mean you’ve never cut a kangaroo’s leg off in mid-hop by tossing a boomerang?

  14. When you have government saying, “Everything fun is illegal.” teenagers will see that as, “If it’s illegal, it must be fun.”

  15. Mr. Sullum

    The flaw in this study is the assumption that the drugs ads are intented to reduce use. Since the real purpose of the anti-drug ads is to maintain anti-drug hysteria in non-users, particularly parents, sucess should be measured based on how effective they are in keeping the populace supportive of the the drug war.

  16. Mental note: use spell check when doing any writing after 1AM.

  17. Did the report say anything about changed attitudes toward tobacco use in the anti-tobacco ad viewers?

  18. happy,

    The war on drugs is a war on a phantom menace:

    Is Addiction Real?

  19. Ruthless,

    There never were any gold plated toilet seats.

    The seats were built to government specification and billed in accordance with rules made by Congress.

    i.e. the problem was not corporations but Congress. Which I believe is also the cause of the current problem.

    BTW you would expect that toilet seats for aircraft might not be readily available at Lowes.

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