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How's advertising doing in the war on drugs?

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Colorado and Washington state have legalized recreational marijuana.

Fewer than one-third of eighth graders (32 percent) saw at least one anti-drug advertisement per week last year, compared to more than three-quarters (76 percent) ten years earlier, the University of Michigan's ongoing Monitoring the Future study reports. Percentages for tenth and twelfth graders were lower overall and followed the same trend.

That report also found that marijuana use "has been drifting higher in recent years following a decade or more of fairly steady decline."

Texas State University at San Marcos researchers concluded in 2004 that anti-drug ads were not only ineffective, but could actually be encouraging drug use.

In 1987, the Office of National Drug Control Policy was spending as much as $1 million a day ($2,066,734.15 in today's dollars) on anti-drug television advertising, but in 2012, their media buying became one of the very few non-defense projects to be cut from the federal budget.

So it would be only logical to conclude that advertising has lost the War on Drugs.

Logical, perhaps, but wrong.

If you want something done right...

That's because the Partnership at Drugfree.org (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America) has stepped up to do the job themselves, with donated creative and production work and with donated media.

"The choice was one day the government turns it off and it's gone forever or we try to step in and rescue it," CEO Steve Pasierb told Advertising Age. "We stepped in to keep the campaign alive, [but] we are privatizing it. It's either done through corporate partnership or pro-bono media."

This means doing it on a much smaller budget – $100 million a year, which sounds like a lot until you consider that, in terms of today's purchasing power, it's just about one-eighth of 1987 levels.

A brand-new, 25-year-old message

One change the Partnership made was in its message.

Since the 1970 "Why do you think they call it dope?" commercial, the message was one of scare tactics about the effects of taking drugs. The strategy continued with the iconic 1987 "frying eggs" public service annoucement (and a more violent follow-up starring Rachel Leigh Cook). A 1993 PSA featured a parade of celebrities who died of drug overdoses. In 1997, after his son Hugh died of drug abuse, Carroll O'Connor appeared in a spot pleading with parents to "get between your kids and drugs any way you can."

But in 2005, the message switched to one of personal autonomy, called "Above the Influence." Ironically, this new strategy is an extension of Nancy Reagan's 1980 "Just Say No" campaign. Commercials show different people trying to manipulate teenagers, who exercise their independence by just walking away. "Don't give up the ability to decide for yourself" is the campaign line. It's a message that resonates with the teenage mindset, which is one factor in the campaign's being "enormously successful," according to Pasierb.

Tighter media targeting

When you're spending "free" government money, it's only natural to spend it everywhere, but when it's your own money, you tend to be a lot more careful.

"In the old days we would send our [ads] to media and they would run whatever they wanted whenever they wanted," Allen Rosenshine, vice chairman of the Partnership's board and chairman emeritus of BBDO Worldwide, told Ad Age. "But we are now much more concentrated and scientific and professional in our approach."

Instead of running commercials everywhere, the Partnership has been concentrating on teen media, including digital – which teens not only use a lot, but which costs lots less than television.

For example, a pro bono digital agency ran an online crowd-sourcing contest that resulted in a commercial encouraging teens to "recognize the influences around" and "be yourself." The spot won placement on MTV.com and the TeenNick cable network.

Some critics, such as Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, question the teenage targeting. There's a "burgeoning" problem of middle-age drug abuse, he claims, and besides "I'm not sure ad campaigns are very effective, anyway."

But it's a well-known marketing principle that the teenage years are when adult purchasing preferences get established. That's why Coke (the soda, not the drug) and Pepsi, among other national advertisers, aim their commercials at teenagers. The principle applies to drug use as well. Some 90 percent of addicted adults began as teens.

Moving the needle

Independent research shows that the message and targeting are working.

A study published in a 2011 edition of the American Journal of Public Health, for example, said that "greater exposure to anti-drug advertisements was significantly related to lower odds of having ever used marijuana among eighth-grade girls."

That 2013 University of Michigan study showed that hard-drug use showed a "modest decline" from the year before. Of the eighth graders surveyed, 47 percent said the anti-drug ads made them less likely to use drugs in the future to a "great or very great extent." That's down 2 percent from the year before, but probably within the margin of error. It's also significantly higher than the 40 percent who answered the same way in 2000.

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