Ads keep teens off drugs, study says

It’s now engraved in pop culture memory. The commercial’s narrator holds up an egg — “This is your brain.” She breaks it into the steel pan and watches it sizzle — “This is your brain on drugs.” And now, School of Management professor Subrata Sen has shown, many young kids in America believed the advertisement.

In conjunction with three professors from other institutions, Sen released his study, “Assessing the Impact of Anti-Drug Advertising on Adolescent Drug Consumption: Results From a Behavioral Economic Model,” two months ago. The report concludes that after the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, or PDFA, aired its anti-drug advertisements from 1987 to 1990, 9.25 percent fewer adolescents were using marijuana. The study also showed that the advertisements lowered the rate of adolescent crack cocaine consumption.

“[This advertising] decreases drug use by 9 percent, which corresponds to hundreds of thousands of teenagers,” said New York University professor Vicki Morwitz, who worked with Sen on the study.

Sen said the advertisements were most effective in preventing adolescents from using drugs for the first time. Although the advertisements were not as effective in deterring the adolescents who were already using illicit substances, there was a slight impact, Sen said.

“Previous users were in fact positively affected by the anti-drug advertising,” Sen said.

Howard Simon, the assistant director of public affairs at the PDFA, said these anti-drug advertisements were specifically targeted at youths who had not been using drugs, not those who were already involved in drugs. Simon added that Sen’s report confirms Simon’s own ideas about combating adolescent drug usage.

“Prevention is still recognized as the best way to combat drug use,” Simon said. “[But those] experimenting with drugs are the ‘swing vote’ on the drug issue, someone I think we’d like to reach.”

In conducting more current surveys on adolescent drug usage, the PDFA has found that in recent years, there has been a 71 percent increase in teenage ecstasy use in America, Simon said. In February, the PDFA began launching its first anti-ecstasy advertisement campaigns, Simon added.

Sen said he would love to expand his research and use more current data. He added that the methodology he currently employs could also be applied to other public health campaigns, such as those on anti-smoking and anti-drinking.

Morwitz said the more recent studies about teenage drug use confirm her and Sen’s research.

“[The recent findings] are consistent with a growing body of work showing that anti-drug advertisements can work,” Morwitz said.

Sen said because his research illustrates the effectiveness of anti-drug advertising, the federal government should be more supportive than it is in funding anti-drug campaigns. Sen added that he disagrees with the government’s idea that anti-drug campaigns do not warrant a substantial amount of federal spending.

“They’re the only ones who claim advertising is not as effective in deterring drug use,” Sen said.

Sen said the government should concentrate on preventing teenage drug usage without allowing party politics to factor into the debate.

“It shouldn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or a Republican,” Sen said. “In looking at this problem, we are trying to protect our adolescents from drug usage.”

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