Challenging Dogma - Fall 2009

Sunday, December 13, 2009

A Critique of The Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Above the Influence Media Campaign- Aviva Goldstein

The Above the Influence media campaign is an advertising campaign in the United States that has been highly scrutinized. The advertisements are created for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign and funded by a program of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) along with a partnership for a Drug-Free America (1). While several studies have shown that ONDCP’s Above the Influence Campaign has been largely ineffective in reducing teen drug use, virtually non have really examined social science theories to understand the basic flaws that have lead to the campaign’s failure. The Above the Influence media campaign is flawed due to its inappropriate use of the Advertising Theory, Marketing Theory, and Social Psychological Reactance Theory. This paper will critique the ONDCP’s Above the Influence campaign and specific advertisements with evidence-based criticism using social and behavioral science theories and research in order to portray their flaws. This paper will suggest that if these theories were incorporated into the Above the Influence Campaign, it would be more effective in promoting anti-drug messages to youth.

Introduction: The Above the Influence Campaign

Congress authorized the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (NYAMC) in July of 1998, as part of the Treasury and General Government Appropriation Act, the Drug Free Media Campaign Act of 1998 (3). This was the largest anti-drug media campaign in US history (11). The NYAMC had three goals in which they were gong to launch their campaign in three phases: “educating children and teenagers (ages 9-18) on how to reject illegal drugs, preventing them from starting drug use, and convincing occasional users to stop” (3, 6, 7). The campaign’s planning strategy included reviews of past teen drug use studies and collaboration with consultants, academic experts, civic organizations, and government agencies (3). U.S government spent over $1.4 billion to support the campaign between 1998 and 2006 (3, 11).

In 2001 the campaign used a youth brand phrase “My Anti-Drug” to unify its advertisements (6). In 2002, the campaign redirected its efforts to target 14-16 year olds and began the Marijuana Initiative, focusing on achieving high exposure and advertising the negative consequences of marijuana use and the positive results of a drug-free lifestyle (11, 3). In 2007, the Above the Influence Campaign further amplified their advertising efforts by also targeting parents and the idea of peer pressure (10). In efforts to reach out to parents and to raise awareness about teen prescription drug use, the campaign launched extensive advertisements in the 2008 Super bowl (10). This year NYAMC has also incorporated anti-methamphetamine messages in their media campaign (10). Despite the campaign’s strong efforts and increased funding, the campaign’s design and implementation have been shown to be ineffective in reducing teen drug use (11, 7, 3).

Although the campaign was ineffective in meeting their goals, the greatest strength of the Above the influence Campaign has been their extensive mass media exposure through advertisements on television, radio, online, billboards, and magazines (6, 10). As a reasoning for their high exposure of advertisement, according to the Above the Influence campaign, they argue that, “the more aware you are of the influences around you, the better prepared you will be to stand up to the pressures that keep you down (1). The ads were very visible, with “more than 94% of youth reported general exposure to one or more anti-drug messages per month, with an average of about two to three ads per week (2). In Hornik’s study with the National Survey of Parents and Youth (NSPY), “fifty-four percent of youth recalled at least weekly exposure to specific-campaign television hat had aired in recent months” (7).

Failures of the Above the Influence Campaign

Evaluations are vital in order to assess the effectiveness of an intervention. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) was authorized to assess the campaign’s results in a 5-year longitudinal study (3, 7). The Government Accountability Organization (GAO) along with a contracted research firm, called Westat, was in charge of analyzing the campaign’s results. The report concluded that the ONDCP’s media campaign had been ineffective, with “no significant favorable effects of campaign exposure on marijuana initiation among non-drug-using youth or cessation and declining use among prior marijuana users” (3). The research done by Westat through the National Survey of Parents and Youth (NSPY) found that youth and parents were highly exposed to the advertisements of the campaign but the campaign didn’t change youth’s health behaviors regarding drug use (3). Hornik and Jacobsohn surveyed samples of over 8,000 youth cohorts aged 9-18 during 1998 to 2004 to assess the campaign’s effectiveness and also found that “the campaign was effective in achieving a high level of exposure but it was not successful in affecting marijuana use or related cognitions in the desired direction” (7).

In another study that showed the anti-drug campaign’s ineffectiveness claimed, “that anti-drug ads may have unwittingly delivered the message that other kids were doing drugs, inadvertently slowing measured progress that was being made to curb marijuana use among teenagers” (2). For instance, “youth who saw the campaign ads took from them the message that their peers were using marijuana so in turn those who came to believe that their peers were using marijuana were more likely to initiate themselves” (2). The GAO and Westat report also concluded that “exposure to the advertisements generally did not lead youth to disapprove of using drugs and may have promoted perceptions among exposed youth that others’ drug use was normal” (3). Overall Westat found “that the campaign generally had no effect on attitudes on youth not using marijuana toward its use but that exposure to the campaign was associated with unfavorable effects on youth perceptions of others’ use of marijuana” (3).

The campaign was also flawed because it even created a boomerang effect, where a relationship between campaign exposure and higher rates of marijuana initiation occurred (3). A boomerang effect is a significant problem and is when a campaign generates a counterproductive effect, in which individuals adopt behaviors that the persuasive messages were trying to prevent in the first place. According to Hornik’s study, “there was an overriding pattern of unfavorable lagged exposure effects…at round one, more ad exposure predicted less intention to avoid marijuana use and weaker anti-drug social norms at a later round” (7). Even later rounds of surveys in the campaign led to pro-marijuana effects, with exposure to anti-drug ads being associated with a slight increase in the initiation of marijuana use among certain subgroups of teens (12-13 year olds, girls, African Americans, and lower risk youth/non-users) (7, 3). For example, “teens who recalled seeing 12 or more anti-drug messages per month were actually more likely to start using marijuana than those who had seen fewer anti-drug messages per month” (2). Advertisement promises or messages should thus avoid exaggeration, fear, or contradicting beliefs, since it can push individuals to the opposite direction of the intended message’s goals.

In response to the GAO and Westat findings, the ONDCP disregarded the report and continued with the expensive media campaign. Overall drug use among US teens gradually declined from 2001 to 2004 (9, 7). While the decline in teen drug use is outstanding, the studies by Westat and Monitoring the Future show that the declines are not linked to exposure to the media campaign (3). Regardless of studies and reports, the ONDCP attributed the 19% decline from 2001 to 2005 in teen drug use as a success of their media campaign (3), saying “there were 800,000 fewer American teens using drugs now than there were in 2001” (2). The decline in drug use among US teens in that period could have been due to confounding factors that were affecting drug use decisions among teens, rather than exposure to the campaign (3). Unfortunately despite the ONDCP’s remarks of past declines in drug use and the report’s findings, drug use among US teens is still high, with over half of high school teenagers (54%) trying some sort of illegal drugs before their high school graduation (9).

Critique of the Advertisements

The Above the Influence advertisements fit into three categories, “1) resistance skills and self-efficacy, to increase youth’s skills and confidence in their ability to reject drug use, 2) normative education and positive alternatives, addressing the benefits of not using drugs, and 3) negative consequences of drug use, including effects on academic and athletic performance” (6, 7). According to the types of advertisements in the campaign, it’s safe to say that the ONDCP was trying to follow constructs of the Health Belief Model, Theory of Reasoned Action, and Theory of Planned Behavior, by taking into account perceived susceptibility, perceived severity, perceived barriers, perceived benefits, subjective norms, self-efficacy, and social acceptability. The campaign’s ideology that youth are rational beings and can make decisions based on these constructs, fails to really understand human behavior and integrate other social science theories. Unfortunately their campaign’s design with anti-drug preventative messages didn’t incorporate other social behavior theories like psychological reactance theory, marketing, and advertising, and didn’t use the intended constructs the right way to bring about changes in youth intentions and behavior. Below are several examples of Above the Influence video advertisements that were released on television and on the web.

An Above the Influence video ad called “Pony” takes place in some outdoor farm. One friend proceeds to harass the pony and pull the pony’s tail. The pony kicks his hind legs and kicks the teen in the groin. The second friend follows, acting as if the activity looks like fun, and does the same thing. The last friend decides it’s a bad idea and leaves because according to the ad’s slogan “he’s living above the influence”. (1)

While this ad is supposed to portray that smoking marijuana makes you think of stupid things to do, its message is incredibly ineffective and the ad comes off as more amusing and entertaining than anything educational.

Advertisements that Violate the Psychological Reactance Theory

Another Above the Influence Ad is called “Shoulders”. This ad is about a teen that is offered marijuana at a house party. While processing the decision of whether to take the drug or not, a series of “people” pop up on his shoulders to tell him what to do. A devil, a stoner, a pizza delivery boy, and a flower child pop up on his left shoulder, while an angel, an astronaut, his teammates, Shakespeare, and his parents appear on his right shoulder. The left shoulder people tell him it will be fun and encourage it while the people on his right shoulder tell him it will ruin his future and it will make his parent upset. In the end of the ad, Steven opts out of smoking marijuana. The “Shoulders” ad is an example of the violation of psychological reactants theory, of when you tell someone to do something they go and do the opposite. In this ad there are two conflicting sides with a teenager being faced with the decision of smoking marijuana with the good judgment on one shoulder and the bad judgment on the other shoulder. It’s very unrealistic since you don’t really have appearing individuals out of nowhere on your shoulders telling you what to do. These reactants or emotional and cognitive persuasions can occur when heavily pressured or threatened from freedom of a behavior. “When people think that a freedom is threatened they experience reactance, a motivational state aimed at restoring the threatened freedom” (13). In this ad, according to the social psychological reactance theory, a teenager may be more likely to smoke, due to the communicators undermining resistance and a teenager’s attitude of rebelliousness to exert their freedom.

There are several Above the Influence ads that have a dog relaying the anti-drug messages to youth. One of them is called “Dog”:

“The Scene opens with a teenage girl walking into the kitchen of her home and putting her backpack on the counter. She goes to the fridge to get a soda, hears a voice call her name, and turns.

VOICE: Hey, Lindsey? (The girl turns to see that the voice is coming from her dog.)

DOG: I wish you didn’t smoke weed. You’re not the same when you smoke and…I miss my friend. (The dog jogs away; the girl looks ashamed.)

TEXT ON SCREEN: How would you tell a friend?” (1)

There were over 3,522 comments posted on YouTube for this video ad by people with the same response, suggesting that this ad was futile and unrealistic in putting its anti-drug message across through the use of a talking dog (14).

Another similar ad with a talking dog but based on an animation is called “Stop Looking At Me”:

“Scene opens with a guy smoking marijuana. His dog just stares at him.

GUY: Stop looking at me. I can stop smoking pot anytime I want.

DOG: O.K. - how about right now. (Guy looks away and becomes sad)

GUY: Next week is better.

DOG: You disappoint me. (Dog walks away and then raises his flag of independence)” (1)

After 203,751 views on YouTube and over 1500 comments, most people commented about the cute dog and the good song choice for the advertisement, saying it was a funny advertisement (14). The advertisements using dogs are an ineffective tool in portraying the negative effects of drug use due to the dissimilar source of the message. The use of the dissimilar source is the greatest way to create reactants and it becomes a blatant violation of the social psychological reactance theory.

The Above the Influence Campaign and their lack of Marketing and Advertising Principles

As we know from advertising and marketing theory, successful public health ads interact with the target audience and understand the culture and core values of that group (12). Public health practitioners should apply marketing principles, packaging and redefining their product to offer benefits to target audience, and reinforce their core values. Actual formative research with youth, to better understand their needs and wants as a target audience, is key (12). Despite the fact that the NYAMC had done research on planning and designing the campaign, youth were not part of this formative research nor was there any evidence of youth empowerment. For example the Truth campaign, used youth involvement in its formative research, which built trust with the teens and thus enabled them to better understand youth (5). The Truth anti-smoking mass media campaign spoke to adolescents’ aspirations and core values of independence and rebelling against the real enemy, the tobacco industry (5). The truth campaign was effective since it promoted community based youth empowerment and grass roots mobilization (5). The Above the Influence campaign also tried to incorporate a brand identity with their “Anti-Drug” ads. While it allowed for the target audience to identify the campaign with their high exposure ads, it didn’t succeed in promoting positive associations with the campaign’s message or changing youth’s drug-use (3).

Intervention: Improving the Above The Influence Campaign

Although Congress has cut down the budget of the ONDCP from $99 million in 2007 to $60 million in 2008, NYAMC’s Above the Influence Campaign remains in effect, disregarding its many reports and studies that examine its inefficacy (7). Currently the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign uses humor and exaggeration in their Above the Influence advertisements, which have not changed youth’s behaviors regarding drug-use.

Incorporating the Psychological Reactance Theory

The Above the Influence advertisement campaign needs to be improved since it has not been effective in targeting teen’s attitudes and behaviors towards drug use. Using a talking dog as the voice of reason is unacceptable since a talking dog is not realistic and makes this more of a humorous ad than an important anti-drug message. The use of the dissimilar source is the greatest way to create reactants and it becomes a blatant violation of the social psychological reactance theory. Similarity is the most important factor in decreasing reactants (13). Successful public health advertisements must make sure the source of the message is as similar to the target audience since similarity of communicators to target audience creates a positive force towards compliance (13).

Unfortunately none of these advertisements justify why marijuana is illegal or show realistic negative consequences of using drugs. These commercials have no logic, are at times humorous rather than educational, and don't convince teens that drugs are bad. In some cases a cute talking dog may make some youth want to smoke marijuana, because who really wouldn’t want to have a conversation with their dog? Depictions of a behavior being fun can create the target audience to be curious or amused by it, which in many cases may be the opposite effect of what the initial message was trying to portray, backfiring the campaign’s goals.

The advertisements also used dissimilar sources to relay the anti-drug messages, thus violating the social psychological reactance theory. In Silvia’s study, when the communicator was highly similar to the participant, agreement increased, even if messages were threatening (13). According to Silvia, social influence made by reactance theory demonstrates that resistance to persuasion can be overcome despite threats to freedom through similarity between communicator and the target audience (13). Above the influence campaigns should consider this model and such findings to create less controlling and less threatening messages with more similar communicators to really connect to youth and relay the anti-drug message.

Incorporating Marketing and Advertising Paradigms

NYAMC’s strategy was indeed trying to stop selling health as a product and was redefining their product as independence or being “above the influence”. While they may have established an actual teen core value in which to base their advertising, unfortunately their support and promise are not being upheld to advertising and marketing strategies. The Above the Influence campaign does use images and songs to support their promise, but the support is ultimately flawed since the messages are coming across through unrealistic sources. The promises and support are more humorous than educational and serious, which can make the issue of drug use insignificant from teenagers’ views. While there was a high exposure to the ads, youth were not empowered to change their attitudes and behaviors about drug use. Westat found no significant evidence that increased exposure to the campaign’s advertisements reduced youth’s initiation of marijuana use or that it was associated with exposure to quitting (3).

The Above the Influence campaign can be effective in reaching youth if it changes its media strategies and learns from other successful media campaigns like the Truth campaign using basic social science theories in designing their advertisements. Youth should also be more involved in formative research and design of the “new and improved” Above the Influence Campaign, since youth can make a lasting impact on anti-drug messages for other youth. According to Palmgreen’s study regarding the effects of ONDCP’s campaign, the campaign can be improved “to prevent risky behaviors by targeting high sensation seekers with messages containing high sensation value” (11).


The NYAMC’s Above the Influence should be changed to effectively target youth and change their behavior regarding drug-use. The Obama administration should evaluate the past failures of the campaign and improve the ONDCP’s media campaign by refocusing its strategy to use more of a marketing paradigm while also keeping in mind the importance of youth empowerment and the social psychological reactance theory in using similar communicators in their advertisements.


1. Above the Influence. National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign.


2. Barrett, Kate, and Joanna Schaffhausen. "Study: Anti-Drug Ads Haven't

Worked, Report Finds $1 Billion Campaign to Curb Teen Drug Use May

Have Encouraged It." Online Posting. ABC News. 15 Oct. 2008.


3. GAO, and Westat. ONDCP Media Campaign: Contractor's National Evaluation

Did Not Find That Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use. Rep. no. GAO-06-818. Washington DC: United States Government Accountability Office, 2006.

4. Hencken, Randolph. "Why Won’t Teenagers Just Accept Our Anti-Drug

Messages? The Folly of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign". Paper presented at the annual meeting of the NCA 93rd Annual Convention. Chicago, IL, Nov 15, 2007.

5. Hicks, Jeffrey J. "The Strategy Behind Florida's "Truth" Campaign." Tobacco

Control 2001;10: 3-5.

6. Hornik, Robert, Lela Jacobsohn, Robert Orwin, Andrea Piesse, and Graham

Kalton. "Effects of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign on Youths." American Journal of Public Health 2008;98.12: 2229-2236.

7. Hornik, Robert, and Lela Jacobsohn. The Best Laid Plans: Disappointments of

the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Issue brief. 2nd ed. Vol. 14. Philadelphia: Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics, 2009;1-5.

8. Huebner, Angela J. "Examining "Empowerment": A How-To Guide for the

Youth Development Professional." Journal of Extension 1998;36.6.

9. Johnston, Lloyd D., Patrick M. O’Malley, and Jerald G. Bachman. "Monitoring

the Future: National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key

Findings, NIH Publication No 02-5105." Focus 2003;1.3: 213-34.

10. Office of National Drug Control Policy. White House News. Youth Drug Use

Down Since 2002, According to New National Study. Office of National Drug Control Policy.


11. Palmgreen, Philip, Elizabeth P. Lorch, Michael T. Stephenson, Rick H. Hoyle,

and Lewis Donohew. "Effects of the Office of National Drug Control Policy's

Marijuana Initiative Campaign on High-Sensation-Seeking Adolescents." American Journal of Public Health 2007; 97.9:1644-651.

12. Siegel, Michael, and Lyonne Doner Lotenberg. "Marketing Social Change- An

Opportunity for the Public Health Practitioner (Ch.3, pp. 45-71.)." Marketing Public Health: Strategies to Promote Social Change. 2nd ed. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett, 2007.

13. Silvia, Paul J. "Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing

Compliance and Reducing Resistance." Basic and Applied Social Psychology 2005; 27.3:277-84.

14. You Tube. Web.

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