Anti-Drug Advertising Effort Suffers From Cash Withdrawal

White House Campaign Might Not Carry Enough Media Weight to Work

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WASHINGTON ( -- The White House's youth anti-drug advertising campaign is in jeopardy. The question isn't whether the 8-year-old push is effectively reducing drug use, though that is in some dispute. Rather, the issue is whether the campaign's declining media weight is falling dangerously below the level where it can be effective.
John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the ad program 'is working' and that 'there is no excuse for not supporting it.'
John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said the ad program 'is working' and that 'there is no excuse for not supporting it.'

Declining budget
When it first launched nationally in 1999, the campaign's budget was $195 million annually, with about $150 million of the total devoted to advertising that was designed to reach 90% of teens four times of week. It's now down to $99 million annually, with the outlay actually much lower as media inflation eats up more of those dollars in print, broadcast and cable. And then there's the question of whether those traditional buys are even appropriate, given the teen target splintering with the myriad new-media choices.

"It's time for Congress to wake up and support a program that is working," said the nation's drug czar, John Walters. "There is no excuse for not supporting it."

Even some campaign doubters said the low funding level increasingly raises questions about accurately assessing the campaign's strategy. "I do worry about the fact that it's being slowly winnowed away," said John Carnevali, a drug office official during the Clinton administration who is now a consultant on drug policy. "If the program disappears, I'd like to see it be for a good reason, like it not working."

Research and production
The budget numbers are somewhat misleading. Created amid concerns that cutbacks for public-service ads were making those efforts less effective, the drug office campaign broke new ground by "matching" every free ad with a paid ad. But initially a chunk of the money didn't go to media, instead going to research and production costs. So the $99 million budget actually fuels nearly $160 million in ads. But that's still a long way from the $300 million in media time the campaign received in 1999.

Susan Nathan, senior director of Media Knowledge at Universal McCann, said that to maintain the drug office's spending level from 1999 would require at least $500 million in funding today.

The drug office claims the campaign still reaches teens between three or four times a week.

But it's managed that by taking draconian steps. Not only are the Super Bowl spots it once ran gone, but the campaign has ceased running ads aimed at parents and reduced the number of messages aimed at minority groups.

Moreover, the drug office started hoarding its ad time rather than give part of it over to other public-service groups for messages related to drug prevention-an agreement originally made to mollify public-service groups worried that their ads would get bounced by paid anti-drug ads.

Assessing the impact
But Ms. Nathan said assessing the impact of the cuts is "a tough question to answer" without examining specific objectives.

Mr. Walters, initially skeptical of the campaign, ordered up more pre-testing of creative and refocused it squarely on marijuana with the argument that it is the gateway to other drugs. Today, he strongly defends the campaign as adequately hitting the target audience -- though barely -- and is pushing hard to get the $120 million President Bush proposed in funding this year. Getting even that is anything but a certainty.

Jennifer Hing, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Joe Knollenberg, R-Mich., who heads a House appropriations panel that will consider the $120 million request, said money is going to be stretched thin this year.

"It's going to be hard to prioritize the funding," she said. "The natural disaster [Katrina] has sucked up a lot of money and the congressman is going to take a serious look at every program on the table."

Legislative requirements
Legislation that passed the House this year would require 82% of money budgeted to be spent on media if less than $125 million is appropriated, though the House also added a new requirement that 10% of the spending go to anti-methamphetamine ads. The Senate Judiciary Committee has yet to act on those changes.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which produces the drug office spots (FCB is the drug office's agency) frets that $120 million is too little. Sean Clarkin, director-strategy, said the Partnership way back in the Clinton administration recommended $175 million a year in annual media spending to ensure the weight of anti-drug ads was roughly equivalent to the early '90s when media companies ran more PSAs.

"It's working," said Mr. Clarkin. "We would like it to be funded at a higher level." He would like to see more efforts aimed at parents, a beefing up of multicultural campaigns and "being more present in lives of teens by being in more non-traditional media and trying to de-normalize drugs in the lives of kids in a way that seems like its coming from other kids."

The funding concerns drown out some of the good news, which is that both government and private researchers indicate teen drug use is decreasing.

'Monitoring the Future' study
The government numbers come from the long-running "Monitoring the Future" study in which the University of Michigan surveys 8th, 10th and 12th graders' attitudes on drug use. That survey shows that the percentage of 10th graders using illicit drugs within the last 30 days has fallen off sharply, going from 23.2% in 1996 to 17.3% in 2005. The same measure for high-school seniors was at 36.2% in 1997, dropping to 23.1% last year. Marijuana was the biggest part of the drug use and its numbers were down too.

The Partnership, which wasn't entirely happy about the focus on marijuana that the Bush administration brought and moved to make its own public service efforts on other drugs, now concedes it has worked. "It's no secret that we had reservations about [marijuana]. We pushed for a bigger repertoire," said Mr. Clarkin. "I have to say that the results appear to vindicate the focus on marijuana."

Others question the measuring tool for success or whether the ad campaign has had much to do with any change. And some worry that kids using illegal drugs may just have moved on from marijuana to abuse of prescription or over-the-counter medications.
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