Clinton's Antidrug Plan: $2 Billion Ad Blitz

Biggest government ad campaign ever aims to lower youth drug use. But will it work?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Think about how many times you've seen an ad with the Nike swoosh or a pitch for Sprint's long-distance rates. Now compare that with the number of times you've seen an ad against drug abuse.

The drug ad probably doesn't even come close.

But that should change today, when President Clinton and drug czar Barry McCaffrey roll out an antidrug media campaign that's bigger than Nike's, Sprint's, or that of American Express.

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It's the largest media blitz ever undertaken by the federal government. And antidrug ads like these will be hard to forget: bugs crawling all over a teenage boy (as he might hallucinate while on methamphetamines); a young woman demolishing her kitchen with a frying pan (symbolic of the destruction heroin use can cause); and a sweet grade-school girl who looks at the camera blankly when asked what her mother told her about drugs.

Drug use by youths has risen throughout most of the Clinton presidency. But now with a five-year, $2 billion ad campaign, the White House hopes to lower it within two years, especially among children 13 and under.

But the question remains: Will this high-cost, high-profile strategy work? Research shows a link between advertising and less use, though there's "not any that's totally conclusive," says Lloyd Johnston, principal investigator for the Monitoring the Future study, a comprehensive survey that tracks drug use in America.

Several studies, including those done by Dr. Johnston, support the premise that ads affect kids' attitudes toward drugs - and that attitudes in turn affect behavior.

When advertising increased in the 1980s, drug use by youths decreased. When it declined in the 1990s, drug use increased (though it leveled off last year and declined in some areas, such as marijuana use).

Yet other factors have contributed to increased use of drugs in the '90s. The music industry, for instance, began to send pro-drug messages through lyrics and individual stars' behavior. Marijuana became more acceptable, because many kids' parents once used it and because of its increasing medicinal role.

Leigh Leventhal, spokeswoman for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), expects the administration's campaign will have an impact on use.

For the first time, she points out, the US government is going to pay for prime-time advertising. That's a welcome development after "dwindling" public-service advertising. "What we've been lacking is consistency, and in order to be consistent and reach kids, you've got to be on prime time," says Ms. Leventhal, whose New York-based nonprofit group is providing the ads for the campaign.

TV, radio, Internet, schools

The media campaign, aimed at nonusers and infrequent users, will go far beyond prime time, though. It will include national and local TV, radio, and print ads.

It will also reach kids through the Internet, Channel One in schools, and billboards. The White House calls it "not just an ad campaign," saying the administration will also work with the entertainment industry to portray more accurately the consequences of using drugs.

Those inside and outside the White House say that for the media campaign to work, it must target the needs of America's different communities, include parents, provide follow-up support at the grass-roots level, and be consistent.

The program is a bipartisan, public-private partnership. Half its cost will be covered by the government, half by the media industry, which will contribute time and space for the campaign.

Congress has approved this year's federal installment of $195 million and is likely to support the next installment. The media industry, Leventhal says, "has been enormously generous."

On the surface at least, the campaign seems to meet many of the criteria for success. One measure is that in five months of pilot testing in 12 cities, calls to a national clearinghouse hot line increased 40 percent compared with cities that weren't part of the pilot program. Some local hot lines in the pilot cities saw the number of calls increase by 400 to 500 percent.

Early ads showed success

In the test, the ads were targeted at different communities. Anti-methamphetamine ads appeared in San Diego, because this drug is on the increase in the West and Midwest. But anti-heroin ads were aired in Baltimore, because that's the emerging drug there.

All the test cities had ads aimed at parents, because research shows that drug use is significantly lower among children who learn at home about the risks of drugs.

Meanwhile, groups like the National Guard and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America - which include about 4,000 local antidrug groups - are working with the administration to support the campaign at the grass-roots level.

The pilot test hasn't been without bumps. "These ads don't talk to my population," says Jeff Spiegel of San Diego's Communities Against Substance Abuse. He wants to see ads that focus on Latinos.

The White House acknowledges this gap and others, including a lack of staff to deal with the interest the media campaign is expected to generate.

But it says it is trying to solve these problems and points out that its campaign will be monitored and adjusted if it is not meeting goals.

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