The Next Front in the Drug War: the Media

The nation's youth too often get a pro-drug message from TV, films, and ads, but that's about to be countered

Corporations spend billions of dollars on advertising because it works. The electronic media - television, radio, film, videos, Internet, CD ROM, and multimedia (including print augmented by color photography) - are the strongest educational tools of the modern world. They change attitudes and behavior among youth in the fastest, most effective way. So if Americans are serious about reducing substance abuse, an aggressive media campaign is a crucial addition to drug prevention at home, in schools, and in communities.

Congress is now considering just such a campaign - our proposal to spend $175 million to motivate young people to reject illegal drugs. Through support from the media and others in the private sector, this figure could double - allowing us to increase both paid advertisements and public service efforts.

The need is clear

Such an initiative is unquestionably necessary. Even though overall drug use in our country has dropped by half in the last 15 years, teenage drug use rose precipitously. Eighth-grade use, for example, nearly tripled in the last five years. During this period, the number of antidrug public service announcements fell by 30 percent, and many aired in time slots that attract few children.

The media initiative is only the beginning of a greater educational campaign that will use every tool available to reach US youngsters. Documentaries about the history of drug use, the impact of narco-terrorism, and the link between drugs, crime, and the justice system can be supplemented by factual, dramatic shows about the consequences of substance abuse. Young viewers would be more likely to shun addictive substances if they were better informed about the violence associated with this criminal industry, as well as the health risks posed by illegal drugs.

Today's kids spend more time watching television than attending classes in school. By high school graduation, the average youth has seen approximately 15,000 hours of TV, as compared to 12,000 hours in school. Whether we like it or not, electronic media have revolutionized the way people learn - much as Gutenberg's printing press and movable type changed Renaissance Europe from an oral to a written culture. In the 20th century, mass communication has brought us back to word-of-mouth, conveying information through speech and pictures that are electronically enhanced to magnify impact.

The media are more than the message; they have become our environment. The signs on buses we see when riding, the eye-catching packaging we view while eating, the music that fills our cars while we're driving, characters like Roseanne, Seinfeld, or the Bunkers who join our families at home, commentators who bring us news from around the world - all create a media envelope that shapes the way we think.

Because mass media act like a "proxy peer" to our youth, defining culture by identifying what's "cool" and what's not, a broad-based antidrug campaign can counteract pro-drug messages that youngsters receive from many sources. Ad experts suggest a minimum of four exposures a week, reaching 90 percent of the target audience (mostly children but also parents, coaches, youth leaders, and other adults who work with young people) is necessary to change attitudes. The University of Michigan's "Monitoring the Future" study indicates that changes in behavior are preceded by changes in attitude. We believe that, over a five-year period, the right kind of media campaign - along with other prevention programs - can educate students to reject illegal drugs.

A recent study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) notes that media efforts work best at the community level in conjunction with other programs. To maximize impact, the new campaign will tailor ads to match the age, social, and psychological profile of target audiences. Alan Leshner, director of NIDA, points out that scientific research has established which types of ads achieve good results. For instance, messages that encourage audiences to think about issues - as opposed to celebrities delivering slogans - tend to produce enduring changes in viewers. Likewise, research-based material is more effective than scare tactics.

Creative minds in the arts and industry can help. We hope the Advertising Council, and the leadership of Jim Burke with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, will provide experience and talent to help guide this effort.

A powerful counterforce

Education cannot be confined to classrooms any more than morality is limited to religious institutions. The electronic age has seen magazine covers, cereal boxes, food cartons, clothing, video games, and other consumer items turned into billboards. Young people are bombarded by thousands of images, many of which normalize or glamorize drug use. To counter these influences, we must use equally powerful channels of communication.

The idea is not to control young minds. Our purpose is to offer accurate data that enables maturing individuals to make rational choices. Drugs are wrong because they hurt people. We cannot stand idly by while toxic, addictive substances endanger children, family, friends, and neighborhoods.

* Barry R. McCaffrey is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

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