$1 Billion Wasted? Annenberg-Led Evaluation Study Finds Fault with Long-Term Federal Anti-Drug Campaign

A five-year, $1 billion anti-drug advertising campaign by the U.S. Government was ineffective, and may have actually done more harm than good.

That was the finding from a long-term examination of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Robert C. Hornik, Ph.D., the Wilbur Schramm Professor of Communication and Health Policy at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania, was Scientific Director and lead author for the evaluation study. Major findings of the evaluation will be reported in the December issue of the American Journal of Public Health

“The evidence does not support a claim that the campaign produced anti-marijuana effects,” wrote the authors. Professor Hornik was the lead author, along with, among others, Lela Jacobsohn, Ph.D., also from Annenberg.

The evaluation found that the target audience did recall the advertisements. Overall, 94 percent of youths reported general exposure to one or more anti-drug messages per month, with a median frequency of about two or three ads per week. However the message did not get through.

“There is little evidence for a contemporaneous association between exposure to anti-drug advertising and any of the outcomes … Nonusers who reported more exposure to anti-drug messages were no more likely to express anti-drug beliefs than were youths who were less exposed,” said the authors. 

Additionally, the Congressionally-mandated evaluation showed the 12.5-18 year old youths who reported seeing the advertisements more often were actually more likely to intend to use drugs at a later date. The anti-drug advertising campaign was supervised by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Overall management was conducted by the advertising firm Ogilvy and Mather. Advertising messages promoted resistance skills, education and positive alternatives, and negative consequences of drug use. The target audiences were non- and occasional drug users. One of the more recognizable elements in the campaign advertisements was a youth brand phrase: “____: My Anti-Drug,” (with something like “Soccer” filling in the blank). 

Congress mandated the evaluation to evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign. More than 8,000 youths aged 9 to 18 and more than 6000 of their parents were interviewed up to four times between 1999 and 2004. The analyses were based on three types of measures – recalled exposure to anti-drug messages aired by the campaign and other sources; cognitions and behavior related to marijuana, as outcomes; and individual and household characteristics. These associations reported in the study were adjusted for other possible influences on youth exposure to advertising.