Challenging Dogma - Fall 2009

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Don’t Be a Patsy: A Critique of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s Campaign to Connect Parents with their Teens – Adam J. Tapply

I. Introduction
The war on teen drug use is one that has no end in sight. In one of the most recent studies, the Monitoring the Future Study asked high school seniors, "On how many occasions, if any, have you used drugs or alcohol during the last 12 months or month?"( ). Of high school seniors in 2008, 42.6% reported having ever used marijuana, 7.2% reported having ever used cocaine, and 1.3% reported having ever used heroin ( ). The rates for all illicit drugs have varied over the years, but the trend remains rather steady ( ). The increase in marijuana use (past-month use) has been especially pronounced. Between 1992 and 2008, past-month use of marijuana increased from 12% to 19% among high school seniors, 8% to 14% among 10th graders, and 4% to 6% among 8th graders ( ). The Monitoring the Future study also found high percentages of students reporting they could obtain certain drugs fairly easily or very easily in 2008 with marijuana having the highest percentage at 83.9% followed by amphetamines at 47.9% and cocaine at 42.4% ( ). In 2007, 22% of all students in grades 9 through 12 reported someone had offered, sold, or given them an illegal drug on school property ( ). Data from a 2007 survey showed that marijuana and cocaine use is the most prevalent among persons age 18 to 25 ( ). Teen and young adult drug use is not a new issue, but the fact that the combined might of all the public health interventions implemented over the years has failed to make a pronounced impact is alarming.
The majority of teen drug interventions target the teens themselves. Some studies have found, however, that interventions centered on the parents may be more effective in curbing teen drug use. One study used data from substance abuse surveys of 7th to 12th graders to explore the relationship of parent-child communication to drug involvement and found that (a) parents are most often identified as the individuals who have talked to a child about drugs; (b) youth consider parents to be credible sources of information about drugs; (c) as perceived family sanctions go up, drug involvement goes down; (d) youth with the highest levels of drug involvement are the group most likely both to have had no one talk to them and to have had the largest number of people talk to them about drugs; and (e) perceived family sanctions increase dramatically for highly drug-involved youth once they have been talked to by one person ( ). Another survey found that teens with “hands on” parents – parents who have established a household culture of rules and expectations for their teen's behavior and monitor what their teens do – are at one quarter the risk of using drugs as teens ( ). Another study, at the time the largest study ever of U.S. teenagers, found that adolescents are far less likely to use alcohol and drugs, or engage in other dangerous behavior, when they feel loved and nurtured at home ( ). The importance of quality parental interaction with teens is unquestionable and this has been the focus of one of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s most recent campaigns.
Beginning in October of 2008 and continuing to this day, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has run an anti-drug ad campaign focused on getting parents to seek advice on how to talk to their teens about drugs. They relied on data from the 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study (PATS), which found that half of all parents (51 percent), with kids in 6th-8th grade, feel they lack the tools and information to prevent drug and alcohol use ( ). The research found, in general, that there is an increased need for parents to find a way to talk with their kids. The main platform for this campaign has been a series of television commercials starring Patsy, a well-intentioned, high-energy mother with a Midwestern accent, ready to go to any length to keep her kids from using drugs and alcohol.
The “Patsy” campaign consists of four 30-second and two 15-second TV spots (which can all be found on the website:, five “webisodes” for YouTube, one radio spot and 2 print executions. Each commercial has the premise of having Patsy act as a renegade Youtube-style blogger showing the audience via home-video how she communicates with her children about drugs. In the commercials, Patsy not only uses a drug-sniffing dog, she sneaks up on her teen son in the shower, drills him on drug facts, and demonstrates a benevolent, police-style “Patsy pat-down.” Patsy also shows off her own method for preventing abuse of prescription medications – she removes the labels from every bottle in the medicine cabinet ( ). Patsy is deliberately positioned as a well-intentioned mother who is mistaken in how best to communicate with her children about drugs, thus the prompting at the end of each ad: “Don’t be a Patsy. Learn a Better Way at” Alon Shoval, the executive creative director of the campaign, says, “By creating Patsy, a mom who gets it all wrong, we allow real moms to laugh at themselves and realize they don’t have all the answers” ( ). In effect, when parents laugh at Patsy, they get her point without having to hear a lecture. The underlying purpose is to get parents to access the content on website – an expansive “Parent Resource Center” that offers “Advice by Age”, help “Understanding Teens”, “Protecting Your Kids”, advice on “How to Spot Drug & Alcohol Abuse”, and “How to Help if They’re Using”, among other resources.
This paper will focus on the TV / Youtube portion of the ad campaign rather than the online content. Though I’m not one myself, I found the online content to be an excellent source of resources for parents. The ad campaign that is supposed to draw attention to this content, however, is flawed in my opinion. In the next section, I will detail these flaws and describe how and why they detract from the effectiveness of the commercials. In the final section, I will illustrate how the commercials could be changed in accordance with social and behavioral science principles to be more effective.
II. A Critique of the “Don’t Be a Patsy” Ad Campaign
This section argues that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign is flawed for three main reasons. First, the campaign fails to incorporate basic principles of advertising theory into its message. Second, the campaign fails to consider spontaneous situations. Third, the campaign underestimates the importance of context.
A. The “Don’t Be a Patsy” Campaign Fails to Incorporate Basic Principles of Advertising and Marketing Theory
The “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign is based around the idea that parents will (Step 1) watch these commercials, (Step 2) laugh at them, and then (Step 3) go to the online website. The idea is that, when they laugh at Patsy, the mother in the commercial, they are really laughing at someone like themselves who doesn’t really know how to talk to her children about drugs. In my opinion, Step 1 and Step 2 work, but Step 2 does not connect effectively to Step 3. The campaign therefore fails because the parent doesn’t access the important content on the website, which is the entire purpose of the campaign.
Watching Patsy, the parent is supposed to laugh, but it’s an uncomfortable laugh. There’s a veiled threat in the message of this campaign: parents do not know how to talk to their children about drugs, so they may be able to get away with anything. This may not be the intended message, but there is clearly no explicit message. The campaign is using an implied threat to inspire a level of fear in parents, which, as I will discuss, can be effective as long as it’s employed correctly.
Advertising theory is based around a “Promise” and “Support” for that promise. The promise generally concerns the product being advertised and its promised benefits ( ). The next step is to support the promise with an example of its benefits in the form of a story, images, symbols, and/or metaphors ( ). The “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign’s commercials make the promise that, if you act like Patsy, your children will not connect or communicate with you and will therefore be more likely to do drugs. This is basically the support provided in the commercials set up as a quick example / story, though the teens are never actually shown doing drugs. One could also look at the promise this way: parents are completely clueless when it comes to their children and drugs and they (the children) can get away with anything. Because there’s no explicit message, it’s up to the viewer to figure out what the message is and here it is simply not coming across as it should.
The Persuasive Health Message (PHM) Framework offers another approach for creating a persuasive message. A persuasive health message should contain a threat message and an efficacy message ( ). The threat portion of the message tries to make the audience feel susceptible to a severe threat. The efficacy portion tries to convince individuals they are able to perform the recommended response (i.e. self-efficacy) and that the recommended response effectively averts the threat ( ). Evidence from fear-appeal research suggests that messages are most effective when there are high levels of both threat and efficacy ( ). Applying this to the “Don’t Be a Patsy” ads, we see a low level threat that’s implied, not explicit: you don’t know how to communicate with your children about drugs; and no efficacy at all. The efficacy portion would only emerge if the parent was inspired to go to the online content, which is unlikely since the threat message is so weak.
The message of the “Don’t Be a Patsy” ads doesn’t effectively sell parents on the idea of logging onto the online website. They merely provide a humorous example of what not to do without giving the viewer any pressing reason to learn how they should make a change in their own behavior.
B. The “Don’t Be a Patsy” Campaign Fails to Consider Spontaneous Situations
The nature of the “Don’t Be a Patsy” ads are, by design, planned. Each ad starts off with Patsy speaking to the camera about how she is about to interact with her child. In most of these situations, the child is simply walking by: coming down the stairs in one ad, coming through the front door in another. The behavior of Patsy looks to follow the Theory of Reasoned Action. This theory suggests that a person's behavior is determined by his/her intention to perform the behavior and that this intention is, in turn, a function of his/her attitude toward the behavior and his/her subjective norm ( ). This theory assumes that behavior is planned and is static. To a degree, Patsy’s behavior in the commercials is probably a little accurate: many parents do not know how to talk with their children about drugs and resort to “traps” – planned confrontations – like the ones employed by Patsy. Life and human behavior is generally not like this, however, and the online content recognizes this.
The parent toolkit on the website encourages parents to take advantage of “teachable moments”: this refers to using every day events in your life to point out things you’d like your child to know about, including drug situations going on in your own neighborhood, drug-related headlines in the news, and other situations on TV and in the media ( ). This behavior (the correct behavior) is far more spontaneous than the behavior demonstrated by Patsy. The audience should clearly understand that Patsy’s behavior is wrong, but what should they do about it? The correct behavior is not illustrated, so therefore the audience has no idea how to perform a behavior that actually works.
The Theory of Planned Behavior adds self-efficacy to the Theory of Reasoned Action equation. Self-efficacy relates to the belief that you’re capable of doing a particular behavior ( ). I cannot apply how Patsy is affected by self-efficacy because she is a fake person, but, as I mentioned in the previous section, self-efficacy is an important part of the viewer’s experience here. There is no self-efficacy present in these messages, however, because Patsy performs an improper behavior that clearly doesn’t work. It would have been far more effective to show a Pasty-type character demonstrate one of the teachable moments described on the website and show how the correct behavior causes the appropriate reaction in her child. The self-efficacy would come across and the viewer would gain confidence that they could themselves perform that correct behavior.
C. The “Don’t Be a Patsy” Campaign Underestimates the Importance of Context
Darley and Batson’s classic study on helping behavior (the “good Samaritan” study) demonstrated how much of an effect context can have on behavior. The results of this study showed that a person in a hurry is less likely to help people, even if he is going to speak on the parable of the Good Samaritan. This shows, basically, that behavior is strongly affected by the context in which it occurs. Consider the context in which the “Don’t Be a Patsy” commercials take place: most of the ads have Patsy cornering her child in a normal, relatively context-free situation (coming down the stairs or entering in the front door, as mentioned before). Is this the right time to talk to your child about drugs? The Partnership for a Drug-Free America clearly doesn’t believe so, as evidenced by the online parenting guide, which directs parents to make use of “teachable moments.”
The fundamental attribution error is a common type of cognitive bias in social psychology. Essentially, the fundamental attribution error involves placing a heavy emphasis on internal personality characteristics to explain someone's behavior in a given situation, rather than thinking about external situational factors ( ). When we see Patsy fail in her attempt to communicate with her children, the fundamental attribution error would argue that the audience blames Patsy and her personal characteristics for her communication failure. This is rather misleading, because the context of the situation in these ads also plays a part in determining the outcome of her little interventions. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America clearly intends to highlight this failed context because it shows parents how to use context to their advantage in the “teachable moments” section of its website. Their ad backfires, however, because the audience is not receiving the failed context message. The fundamental attribution error explains that the audience is going to interpret the overall failure as due to Patsy’s personal characteristics instead. In addition to being an overall ineffective message, the parent viewing this commercial may simply reflect on the ad they’ve just seen and think, “I’m not like Patsy. This won’t happen to me.” Therefore, when faced with a situation where they would talk to their children about drugs, the parents are more inclined to think that their own behavior is more important to the outcome than the context of the situation in which the interaction is taking place. The end result is the parent is far less likely to respond to the prompt to go online and access the website’s content containing helpful tips for parents.
III. A Reformulation of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “Don’t Be a Patsy” Ad Campaign
The critiques of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign suggest subtle changes in the format of the ads may make them more effective. For my reformulation of the campaign, I am going to stick with the general format of the ads (home-video with a mother figure and a child), but alter the content of the ads so they are in line with the critiques I made in the previous section. Like the “Don’t Be a Patsy” ads, the goal of the new ads will be to convince the parents in the audience to go online and access the content geared towards parents.
The message of the original “Don’t Be a Patsy” ads was garbled – it didn’t come across loud and clear that parents need help in figuring out how to communicate with their children and that they should go to the website for help. The reasons for this were (1) the ad’s “promise” wasn’t clear, and the “promise” wasn’t backed by proper support, (2) the ad lacked a sufficient threat message, and (3) the ad didn’t incorporate self-efficacy into its support.
A. The Campaign Should Have a New, Clearer Message
A good persuasive health message contains a powerful threat message and an accompanying efficacy message ( ). The threat portion of the message tries to make the audience feel susceptible to a severe threat. The efficacy portion tries to convince individuals they are able to perform the recommended response and that the recommended response effectively averts the threat ( ). The threat in these ads is targeted at parents and should be created accordingly. A good threat message is simply: “your children will do drugs.” Adding self-efficacy to the messages results in the final message: “your children will do drugs unless you can communicate with them about the dangers of doing drugs.” The threat is clear, as is the recommended response that can effectively nullify the threat. How this message is conveyed through the ad will determine how effectively the message is received by the audience. Accordingly, the direction of the ads – meaning the scenes they show – should be changed.
B. The Campaign Should Have a New “Promise” and Proper “Support” in Accordance with Advertising Theory
Shifting to Advertising Theory, the message conceived in the previous section can be translated into a “promise”: “if you communicate effectively with your child about drugs, he/she will be less likely to do drugs.” Next, support needs to be designed that conveys this promise effectively to the parent viewing the ad. I envisage these ads taking place in three scenes. In Scene 1, a teenager is making an arrangement with a friend (via texting, for example) to go drink some alcohol or smoke some marijuana. Scene 2, presents a situation between the time the arrangement is make and when the drug activity actually takes place. This, in my opinion, is the perfect time to apply one of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “teachable moments”. A parent can be shown talking to her child, who is intending to go do drugs soon afterwards, in a teachable moment. For example, they’re watching TV together when a news update pops on the screen about a local teen that just died of a drug-related condition (maybe alcohol poisoning or a heroin overdose), which leads to a conversation about the dangers of drugs. Or maybe the parent is actually driving the child to his/her friend’s house and the parent points out a homeless man drinking from a liquor bottle on the side of the road, which leads to a conversation about the dangers of drugs. The final scene seals the promise of the ad. The child meets up with the friend with whom he/she was intending to do drugs and simply chooses not to engage in that behavior.
Over the course of a 30 second commercial, the audience is shown (1) intention to do drugs, (2) the intervention, and (3) no intention to do drugs. The parent watching the ad is clearly shown that the intervention – communicating effectively with the child about the dangers of drugs – can change the behavior of the child in the intended way: there’s no longer an intention to do drugs. This is all done by telling a simple 30 second story that could happen to any parent with a teen any day of the week. Furthermore, self-efficacy is incorporated into the ad, here, by showing how the recommended response to the threat (communicating with your child about the dangers of drugs) effectively averts the threat (changed intention). It helps that all of these “teachable moments” presented by website are examples that can truly happen in day to day life; there’s no special skills needed outside of ordinary parenting skills. Showing the parents in the audience how a “teachable moment” can be correctly and effectively employed should effectively convey the message of the ads: “if you communicate effectively with your child about the dangers of drugs, your child will be more likely to choose not to do drugs… learn more effective strategies at”
C. The Context of the Campaign’s Ads Should be Changed
Most of the changes to the ads’ context have already been discussed in the previous section. The main purpose of this change in context is to get the ads out of the mentality of staged interventions employed by Patsy. The setups used by Patsy – grilling her son with questions while he’s in the shower, patting down her daughter as she’s coming down the stairs, forcing her son to pass a drug-sniffing dog as he enters the house – are simply unrealistic and detract from the effectiveness of the message.
The changes I described in the last section make use of real life situations (or potential real life situations, at least). The parent isn’t charged with planning out the behavior of communicating the dangers of drugs to her child; she is simply taking advantage of a spontaneous situation (like a news report, or something seen while driving) and using it to frame a certain context. This is a much better model of human behavior. It doesn’t assume behavior is planned like Patsy does. Furthermore, the new ad accounts for spontaneous events and understands how context can affect the outcome of a conversation.
IV. Conclusion
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign ads are pretty funny, there’s no disputing that. This humor directed at parents, however, is misplaced. There’s little evidence to suggest that laughing at yourself is a good model for encouraging behavior change. Using established social and behavioral science models it is possible to create a more effective ad campaign that employs the same goal as the “Don’t Be a Patsy” campaign. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America may have been aiming for a so-called viral marketing campaign (whether or not it ever reached that status is debatable), but which is really more effective at teaching parents how to talk to their children about drugs: a viral campaign that is ineffective at getting parents to go online and learn about communication techniques? Or a well-designed, though perhaps not as funny, that effectively convinces parents that they need help talking to their kids? In my hypothetical campaign, I’m investing in the latter.


1. Press release: Various stimulant drugs show continuing gradual declines among teens in 2008, most illicit drugs hold steady, University of Michigan News and Information Services, December 11, 2008,
2. Bureau of Justice Statistics Drugs and Crime Facts: Drug use in the general population,
3. Id.
4. University of Michigan, Monitoring the Future National Results on Adolescent Drug Use: Overview of Key Findings 2008, May 2009,
5. Id. at Note 1.
6. BJS jointly with the U.S. Department of Education, Indicators of School Crime and Safety, 2008, NCJ 226343, April 2009,
7. SAMHSA, Office of Applied Studies, 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings, September 2008.
8. Kelly, KJ. “Parent Child Communication, Perceived Sanctions Against Drug Use, and Youth Drug Involvement,” Adolescence 2002; 37; 148.
9. National Center on Addiction & Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, Report: CASA 2000 Teen Survey: Teens With "Hands-off" Parents at Four Times Greater Risk of Smoking, Drinking and Using Illegal Drugs as Teens With "Hands-On" Parents, Sep 18, 2002.
10. Epstein, JH. "Nurturing teenagers to a better future: massive study confirms importance of parental care." The Futurist Mar. 1998; 32; 2.
11. Press Release: Foundation for a Drug-Free America, “Patsy” Teaches Parents How to Talk with Their Kids About Drugs, October 3, 2008,
12. Partnership for a Drug-Free America: Connect With Your Kids Ad Campaign Videos:
13. Id. at Note 11.
14. Ogilvy, D. Confessions of an Advertising Man, New York: 1964, p. 93-94.
15. Id.
16. Id.
17. Witte, K. “Using the Persuasive Health Message Framework to Generate Effective Campaign Messages”, in Designing Health Messages by E. Maibach and R. Parrott (Eds.), Sage Publications, California, 1996: p. 146.
18. Id. at p. 147.
19. Id.
20. Ajzen, I. “The theory of planned behavior.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 1991: p. 179-211.
21. Partnership for a Drug-Free America: Online Content:
22. Id. at Note 20.
23. Darley, JM, and Batson, CD, "From Jerusalem to Jericho": A study of Situational and Dispositional Variables in Helping Behavior". JPSP, 1973, 27, 100-108.
24. Ross, L. The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. 'In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, 1977, vol. 10: pp. 173–220.
25. Id. at Note 17.
26. Id.

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