Okay, I’m a bit behind on my reading, but this is worth mentioning even though it’s a little late. In its December issue, the American Journal of Public Health published the final, officially sanctioned evaluation of the anti-marijuana ads that former drug czar John Walters bombarded us with during the first half of the Bush administration (the evaluation period ends in June 2004). The bottom line: “[T]he campaign is unlikely to have had favorable effects on youths and may have had delayed unfavorable effects.”
Translation: The ads didn’t help, and may have actually encouraged teens to try marijuana.
The researchers drew this conclusion by measuring the marijuana-related attitudes and behaviors of thousands of teens before and after seeing the ads and correlating that behavior with their level of exposure to the campaign. There was simply no sign of a positive effect. And, though the results were somewhat inconsistent, several measurements connected increased exposure to the ads with development of pro-marijuana attitudes and increased likelihood of trying marijuana.
The drug czar’s office hated this evaluation, conducted by the University of Pennsylvania and a private firm called Westat. Indeed, they kept it bottled up long after it should have been released. Then, when Congress got hold of it a couple years ago, they tried to dismiss it. Spokesman Tom Riley insisted to Adweek magazine that a reported general decline in teen marijuana use was proof of the campaign’s success, saying, “The most telling statistic is that adult drug use has not appreciably changed while teen drug use [the target of the campaign] has gone down dramatically. I think that’s the definition of successful advertising.”
But the researchers easily shred such claims, noting that a great many other factors could have influenced use rates. As evidence, they cite “even larger declines in both tobacco and alcohol use than in marijuana use” that occurred at the same time, “suggesting that all substance use was on a downward trend regardless of the campaign.”
So why did the anti-marijuana ads flop so badly? The researchers suggest two possibilities: The youthful tendency to rebel against adults telling them what not to do, and the possibility that the ads caused teens to think marijuana use is commonplace.
Here’s another one: Walters’ ads were so preposterous (some suggested that smoking marijuana will lead to shooting your friends or running over little girls on bicycles) that they caused young people to disbelieve the anti-marijuana message entirely. MPP will keep saying this until someone listens: Lying to kids about marijuana doesn’t work.