Challenging Dogma - Spring 2008

...Using social sciences to improve the practice of public health

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Above the Influence" Goes Down in Flames: Failure to Consider Their Target Audience Dooms Government's Anti-Marijuana Campaign -- Sarah Kenney

Between 1998 and 2004 the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) poured over $1.2 billion into the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, yet a 2005 evaluation of the campaign found that it was not effective in reducing drug use among teenagers (1). In the same year the report was issued, the Anti-Drug Media Campaign launched “Above the Influence,” a series of print and television advertisements that advocate against marijuana use among teenagers. The “Above the Influence” campaign is proving to be another failed campaign developed by ONDCP. The lack of consideration given to the campaign’s target audience (teenage marijuana users) and the social conditions under which these teens live, contributed to this campaign‘s ineffectiveness. The "Above the Influence" campaign fails to affect changes in youth behavior for several reasons: 1.) they alienate their target audience by negatively
labeling them as "stoners", 2.) they do not provide positive models for adolescents to emulate, and 3.) they exaggerate the consequences of marijuana use, thus, their message does not resonate with the target audience.

Negatively label the target audience as "stoners"
Labeling theory is concerned with how the behavior of an individual is influenced by the way that individual is "labeled" or categorized by others in society (2). Labeling theory seeks to explain the long-term consequences of negative labels on a person's self-identity. When people are labeled negatively they begin to think of themselves negatively, and they then begin to act negatively and thus the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The commercials in the "Above the Influence" campaign use descriptors such as "remarkably unmotivated" and a variety of other negative labels to describe adolescents who smoke marijuana (3).They show adolescents sitting on "Pete's couch" until they are 86 and a group of boys who let their non-stoner friend "live life for them" because they cannot make any decisions on their own (3). The ad spot titled "Whatever," even goes so far as to suggest that the boy who doesn't smoke weed is going to leave the other stoners behind when he goes off to college, thus suggesting that if you smoke weed you won't go to college. All these negative labels seem bound to affect the way adolescent pot smokers view themselves. If others in society think they are unmotivated and aren't going anywhere in life then maybe they will start to believe this and act accordingly.

When negative labels damage the adolescents’ self-image, they also damage their self-efficacy to stop using marijuana. The concept of self-efficacy is the focus of Albert Bandera's social cognitive theory, and it is the belief that one is capable of accomplishing a goal or performing a task (4). An important influence on a person's self-efficacy is social persuasion i.e. the encouragement or discouragement someone receives from others when trying to accomplish a goal. All the commercials in the "Above the Influence" campaign show unmotivated adolescents making bad life decisions. The messages discourage the audience's self-efficacy to stop smoking pot because if society feels stoners are unmotivated and unable even to get off Pete’s couch, then they certainly do not believe they are capable of stopping their marijuana use. Thus damaging the target audience’s self-efficacy to stop their marijuana use will not result in the desired behavior change.

There are no positive role models for adolescents to emulate
Modeling is a component of social learning theory, which emphasizes that most human behavior is learned through observing and then modeling the behavior of others (5). Social learning theory plays a large role in understanding adolescent behavior because peer influence and acceptance has such a high priority in that stage of development (6).The "Above the Influence" campaign has an abundance of adolescent stoners modeling negative behavior e.g. pot smoking, yet the ads are trying to get today's youth to stop smoking marijuana. What the campaign does not have is adolescents modeling positive behavior e.g. not smoking pot. The campaign is then telling adolescents what not to do--smoke marijuana--without offering them a positive alternative.

Young adolescents are particularly susceptible to peer influence, both good and bad (6). Thus, a more effective utilization of social learning theory would be to present the “don’t use drugs” message through a positive peer role model. Instead of wasting money on ineffective advertisements void of positive peer influence, the government could actually create more positive role models through peer mentoring programs.

Unrealistic consequences of marijuana use discredits message
When exaggerated dangers or false information are presented to teens, they tend to disbelieve the message and discredit the messenger especially if they have access to contrary information and experience (7, 8). The “Above the Influence” campaign presents a number of unrealistic consequences that an increasingly savvy adolescent population is just not going to buy into. One ad spot titled “Cocoon” (3), depicts a young boy in his room smoking weed, day in and day out, until he is suddenly encased in a cocoon. The boy then emerges as a balding, overweight, middle-aged man who is still living in his parent’s home and the TV screen reads, “what you choose today -- affects who you are tomorrow.” This advertisement is saying to the audience, if you smoke weed you will become unattractive and live with your parents for the rest of your life. However, most teenagers know plenty of young adults who smoke weed and still go to college or have jobs and live on their own and consequently this advertisement is unrealistic--almost laughable--and will not resonate with adolescent audiences because they have access to knowledge that is contrary to the message.

Evaluations of the ONDCP’s media campaign have been consistent in only one area: they are not an effective method for reducing drug use. “Above the Influence” demonstrates that when implementing media campaigns there needs to be more use of formative research with the target audience to ensure that the message is effective. Had the ONDCP considered their audience, they would not have misused labeling theory and thus would not have damaged their target’s self-efficacy with negative labels. Also, if ONDCP paid more attention to research in behavioral science, they would know that including positive role models in their ads would be a more effective means of changing behavior. Lastly, if they did their research, the campaign creators would be aware that exaggerating the consequences of marijuana use is not an effective means of changing behavior in adolescents.

1. United States Government Accountability Office. Contractor’s National
Evaluation Did Not Find That the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use. Washington, DC: GAO 06-818, 2006.
2. Calhoun, C., Light, D., & Keller, S. (1989). Sociology (5th. ed.). Alfred A.
Knopf: New York.
3. “Above the Influence.” The Ads. Washington, DC: National Youth Anti- Drug Media Campaign.
4. Pajares, F. (2002). “Overview of social cognitive theory and of self-efficacy.”
5. Kearsley, G. (1994). “Social Learning Theory.” Theory Into Practice Database.
6. Maxwell, K. (2002). “Friends: the role of peer influence across adolescent risk behaviors.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence.
7. Beck, J. (1998). 100 Years of ‘just say no’ versus ‘just say know’: re-
evaluating drug education goals for the coming century. Evaluation Review 22 (1): 15-45.
8. Golub, A, Johnson, B.D. (2001). Variation in youthful risks of progression fromalcohol and tobacco to marijuana and to hard drugs across generations. American Journal of Public Health; 91:225-232.

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