Aside from watching football, humorous beer commercials and Britney Spears, Super Bowl fans were the first to glimpse the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s sobering ads warning drug users that they could be supporting terrorism with their purchases of illicit narcotics.
The ads targeted teens, with one of the commercials featuring teen actors admitting to the horrific things they helped terrorists do by using illicit drugs. (“I helped kill a judge,” one actor says.)
ONDCP, with the largest annual advertising budget in the government ($180 million), spent an estimated $10 million on the ads. The commercials, which will run in at least three more prime-time TV slots as well as on radio and in 293 newspapers, are part of the ONDCP’s National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, which has been funded at $185 million each year since 1998.
The agency said the expense is paltry compared with the $60 billion Americans spend on drugs each year or the drug-connected profits reaped by terrorist groups. The State Department identifies 12 major terrorist groups as significantly profiting from the drug trade. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan produced 70 percent of the world’s opium in 2000, according to the ONDCP’s “The Anti-Drug” website.
The creation of the campaign is supported by, and might have stemmed from, a survey of 500 children ages 12-17 released in early December by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Fifty-nine percent of the youths said that knowing illegal drug sales finance terrorist attacks against America makes them less likely to use drugs. Although only 46 percent of the youth agreed that terrorism is partly supported by the drug trade, 77 percent favored television commercials delivering information about the alleged connection.
Some drug policy groups are not sure whether the message will hit home or alienate young drug users. “The basic problem is that the ads are disingenuous and full of really exaggerated information about drugs,” said Sharda Sekaran, the 24-year-old associate director of public policy and community outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance, based in New York City. “That was just an attempt to fit the drug war into this new war on terrorism.”
Pat Ford-Roegner, executive director of the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors, said she and her staff were perplexed by the lack of treatment information in the Super Bowl commercials. “We saw them and just sort of looked at each other and said, ”OK … ,’” Ford-Roegner said. “We were glad to hear the president committing more money to treatment… [but] it’s a real jump to make the connection between [those commercials] and seeking treatment.”
Both Sekaran and Ford-Roegner agreed that media campaigns in general may not be as important a tool in substance abuse prevention as ONDCP thinks. “I look at what an after-school program would cost, about $1,500 per student,” Sekaran said. “I don’t think [the ads are] a useful way to use our taxpayers’ dollars.”