Expert Commentary

Exposure to anti-drug advertising and drug-related beliefs and behaviors among U.S. youth

2011 study published in the journal Addictive Behaviors on anti-drug television advertising and self-reported drug use in teenagers.


Television and radio anti-drug campaigns — including the well-known “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” and “Just Say No” ads from the 1980s — have long warned youth about the perils of illicit substances. Millions of dollars have been spent on such efforts, but are they effective? Drugs continue to be a significant public health problem among youth, and the patterns of usage continue to evolve.

A 2011 study from the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago published in the journal Addictive Behaviors, “Potential Exposure to Anti-Drug Advertising and Drug-Related Attitudes, Beliefs and Behaviors Among United States Youth, 1995-2006,” analyzed the extent that anti-drug television ads influenced young people’s behavior and attitudes during this period. The study was based on more than 330,000 responses to the Monitoring the Future Study of illicit drug use by middle and high school students from 1994 to 2006.

Key study findings include:

  • Between 1995 and 2006 in 75 target markets, youth ages 12 to 17 were potentially exposed to an average of 34 anti-drug TV ads within the previous six months. Because of variations in campaigns, exposure ranged from a single ad to 90 ads depending on location.
  • From 2000 to 2006, the average potential exposure over six months to anti-drug TV ads increased from 32 to 45. However, in 2006 average recall levels declined to only slightly above 1994 levels — approximately 62% for middle school students and 60% for high school students.
  • Students in middle school consistently demonstrated better ad recall than did high school students; the researchers suggested that this may be the result of ads from the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign targeting middle school students.
  • There was no significant relationship between general anti-drug advertising and middle school students’ attitudes toward drug use. However, “across campaign phases, disapproval of using marijuana regularly increased significantly with total [marijuana-specific] anti-drug advertising for middle school students.”
  • Researchers saw a “significant positive relationship between total anti-drug advertising and disapproval of marijuana use for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America … campaign phase from 1995 to 1998” in high school students. However, a 2003-2006 campaign resulted in decreased perceptions of marijuana risks and a rise in marijuana use in this population.
  • “Two-thirds of all youth reported seeing anti-drug ads on TV or hearing them on the radio at least weekly in recent months, and the odds of such recall were significantly and positively related to total and marijuana-focused anti-drug advertising.”

The authors conclude: “The likelihood that [anti-drug] advertising will result in youth being more likely to avoid using drugs, seems to depend heavily on the type of advertising utilized and how it relates to different ages and characteristics of targeted youth.” They note a parallel academic study that concludes that the most effective ads focus on “realism, learning and negative emotional response.” A related 2012 study in the Journal of Marketing Research found that graphic depictions of the consequences methamphetamine use had some effectiveness.

In 2011 support for the U.S. Office for National Drug Control Policy’s advertising campaigns was eliminated from the federal budget; the organization is now looking for private and corporate sponsors. While much of the organization’s current outreach centers on social media, its contract with a long-standing advertising partner through 2015 suggests that it may reach out through broadcast media as well.

Tags: youth, drugs, crime, addiction