Anti-Drug PSAs: Do They Work?

The U.S. has spent millions of dollars since the 1980s on anti-drug ads. But research shows that some of these older public service announcements might be counterproductive. Now that the ads are shifting to reach teens who want to rebel, new studies show they may actually be more effective.

Shaunacy Ferro wrote about these TV spots in Popular Science. She explains that in some cases, the old ads like "this is your brain on drugs," may have encouraged teens to try drugs.

"Subconsciously, kids would start to think, 'Hmm, well I don't really know what doing drugs is like. Maybe I should try it,'" Ferro says.

There may be a scientific reason for that curiosity. Ohio University researcher Carson Wagner calls it an "information gap."

"We become curious to close that gap in information," Wagner says. "And in this case, that gap in information is the experience of using drugs."

It wasn't just that kids grew more curious. The clips from the early 1990s were pretty easy to mock. Wagner says that unfortunately the lingo didn't always hit the mark.

"You have people laughing at the person who's doing drugs, and calling that person names that are like so two years ago," Wagner says.

Finally, after more failed campaigns, the makers of PSAs adjusted. Gone were the scare tactics and the ads that made kids wonder if drugs would really scramble their brains. With the "Above the Influence" campaign, the spots began to appeal to the idea that teens want to be seen as individuals, different from their parents and even their peers.

Ferro says these ads were meant to appeal to teens trying to rebel.

"So much of being a teenager is wanting to be independent, that that's really the stance that anti-drug ads should take," she says.

These ads did a little better. A study from Ohio State University found that fewer teenagers who saw the "Above the Influence" clips tried marijuana.

"Eight percent of teenagers in a 2011 study who had seen the campaign and were familiar with it started smoking pot, versus 12 percent who had never seen it," Ferro says.

But Wagner says he thinks we shouldn't take that information at face value. He says ultimately teenagers understand this information is coming from the government.

"Kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for," he says. "Because they'll begin to ask the question, well from where is the influence coming?"

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