Federal Anti-Drug Ads Go to Pot

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Just a year ago, it seemed as though drug czar John Walters was ready to ditch the 5-year-old anti-drug media campaign run by his Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But although the campaign has been beset by allegations of fraud and has produced little by way of measurable results, the ONDCP director now seems re-committed to the idea that the media campaign is a vital instrument in fighting drug use, particularly among youth.

New ads focusing on the danger of marijuana have begun, and last month ONDCP Director Walters testified before the House Appropriations Committee to request a $20 million boost for his agency in fiscal 2004. That’s up from this year’s budget of $150 million, but down from a $180 million authorization last year.

The new ONDCP slate will include more treatment ads (targeting current drug users) and more ads directed at youth instead of parents, and will focus on marijuana.

“Most adults don’t realize you can have a dependence on marijuana,” says ONDCP spokeswoman Jennifer deVallance. “They remember it [from their youth], but it’s a much more potent drug today, and kids are starting at younger age.”

The first wave of controversial marijuana ads was released in the fall. One depicts a youth getting high and accidentally shooting his friend with a gun. Another shows a teenage boy under the influence beginning to make unwelcome advances at a party toward a girl, whose power to resist has been hindered by marijuana.

Charged with the difficult-to-prove task of influencing youth substance abuse through ads, ONDCP seems to have been making adjustments throughout its half-decade of existence.

The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was created out of the Media Campaign Act of 1998, and was to be run by ONDCP in conjunction with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the Washington nonprofit known best for its “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ads.

The next year, ONDCP inked a $1 billion contract with New York City marketing firm Ogilvy & Mather to place the ads and buy media time for them. The ad campaign gave ONDCP the biggest advertising war chest in the federal government.

Trouble first came in 2000, when an anonymous source accused Ogilvy of fraudulent billing practices. In February 2002 the U.S. Department of Justice announced a $1.8 million settlement with the firm over excessive labor charges and inaccurate timesheets. (ONDCP then signed Ogilvy to another contract for $151 million in 2002 – with options that Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, says make the contract worth close to $760 million.)

Then the campaign made headlines in early 2002 with the release of its radio and television commercials linking low-level, run-of-the-mill drug purchases to terrorist groups, many of which make money through the drug trade (“Will Drug Ads Bowl Kids Over?” March 2002).

The ads drew the ire of many left-leaning policy organizations. Sharda Sekaran, associate director of public policy for the Drug Policy Alliance (which opposes the government’s war on drugs), called the ads “disingenuous” and “full of really exaggerated information about drugs.”

Walters said the terrorism ads were “among the most powerful and effective prevention messages this office has ever released.”
But a report for ONDCP compiled by Westat in 2002 gave poor marks to the overall effectiveness of the campaign. While parents reported increased exposure to ads, there was no evidence that they had resulted in an increase in parental monitoring, the “one parent behavior most associated with youth nonuse of marijuana,” the report said.

The evaluation of ads directly targeting kids was even worse. “There is little evidence of direct favorable campaign effects on youth,” said the report, called the National Survey of Parents and Youth. “There is no tendency for those reporting more exposure to Campaign messages to hold more desirable beliefs.”

Walters pledged to either rethink the campaign or scrap it. “If the media campaign … is not successful in reducing youth drug use, [Walters] is prepared to discontinue the campaign and divert its resources to programs that are proven effective,” deVallance said in a statement after the release of the report.

The office tempered that stand partially by blaming the evaluation process itself for the poor results.

Because of pressure to release ads continuously, Deputy Chief of Staff Chris Marston told the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources last year, commercials were being aired, then evaluated. From that point on, Marston said, ads would see the light of day only after being evaluated.

Despite a lack of proven results, some drug prevention advocates say the campaign is a critical element in the fight against drugs.

“When I turn on the TV and watch all the messages coming at kids from, like, 400 channels, I thank God for the media campaign,” says Sue Rusche of the Atlanta-based National Families in Action. “At least there’s something with message that drugs aren’t harmless, fun and safe.”

The next report on the campaign will be released in October, pushed back from its original release date of May to better evaluate ads released in the past few months. The report will include an evaluation of the terrorism ads, which are scheduled to stop airing in June.

Contact: ONDCP (202) 395-6618.