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A Look At The Effectiveness Of Anti-Drug Ad Campaigns


When President Trump officially declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency last week, he promised a massive campaign to discourage drug use.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Really tough, really big, really great advertising so we get to people before they start.

SHAPIRO: For people alive in the '80s and early '90s, that might bring back some memories.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Parents, I'm here to talk to you about a very difficult subject.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Nine out of 10 laboratory rats will use it until dead.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You, all right? I learned it by watching you.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?

SHAPIRO: Anti-drug campaigns started in the early 1980s with Nancy Reagan's message of Just Say No. So researchers have had a lot of time to study whether these messages work. Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, and he's a former drug policy adviser to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Welcome to the program.

KEITH HUMPHREYS: Great to be here.

SHAPIRO: I gather your research shows that these anti-drug ads from the '80s were not very effective.

HUMPHREYS: Yeah. I can't take personal credit for the research, which has been done by many, many groups, but despite billions of dollars spent from the late '80s up through the '90s, the general conclusion is these ads either had no effect or in some cases maybe even a perverse effect that some of the kids who saw the most ads actually said they were more likely to try marijuana rather than less.

SHAPIRO: As a teenager who saw these ads growing up, I can kind of appreciate why that might have been, but explain why these ads intended to deter people from using drugs might have actually had the opposite effect?

HUMPHREYS: Well, partly there was a problem of political economy. I mean, I remember watching one of the - I thought the silliest - ad where somebody smashed an egg and smashed up a whole kitchen with a frying pan being shown to a bunch of members of Congress, and they all jumped up and clapped, but America's youth thought it was ridiculous. And the problem that the ads had was they're trying to please the congressional audience, a 60-year-old white man or woman in a suit. That's not what's going to resonate with kids. In fact, for the kind of kids who are a bit rebellious, it was a signal that, hey, you know, if you really want to irritate your elders, this is the way to do it.

SHAPIRO: So if you do want to deter kids from using recreational, illegal drugs, what might work?

HUMPHREYS: Well, the campaign was dramatically redesigned into something called Above the Influence in about 2006 or so, and it copied more what had been done with tobacco. They - you know, they said to kids, look, you know, the tobacco industry is run by people your parents age you think you're a sucker, and they want to addict you. If you want to really, you know, show that you're free, don't smoke. And that seems to work a little better. What you're saying to young people is if you want to be a cool, independent, free kid, you have the power to choose something else. And that resonates more.

SHAPIRO: The particular challenge today seems to be different from the past because so many people who are addicted to opioids got their first prescription from a doctor who told them to take it for medical reasons.

HUMPHREYS: That's exactly right, and that's another reason I don't think these campaigns work very well. Most of the time, when you get an opioid, someone in a white coat who you trust and are told to trust from a very early age is handing it to you. So it would be strange then to say to your doctor, well, no, I've learned just to say no, doc. I'm not going to follow your instructions.

SHAPIRO: If you had a pot of money to spend on prevention, what do you think would be the most useful way to spend it?

HUMPHREYS: Well, there are really terrific programs that invest in kids, and they don't necessarily focus that much on drugs. They focus on things like teaching kids emotional regulation skills, helping them connect with other people socially and also connecting them with other things that are fun. It's a competition out there, and drugs produce, in the short term, rewards. In the long term, they're destructive. So you want to have other things for kids to do, community events, religious events, anything that will engage them and make them sort of happy, full of life without drugs.

SHAPIRO: That's Keith Humphreys, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University. He was a drug policy adviser to presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Thanks for speaking with us.

HUMPHREYS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.