Drug ads fail another test

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The office of National Drug Control Policy is preparing to unleash a slate of ads directed by Joe Pytka that link drugs and terror, despite a new report commissioned by the office finding that this year's controversial terror effort did not deter drug use.

The publication of the latest report comes six months after drug czar John Walters threatened to kill the government's $150 million-a-year youth anti-drug ad campaign if it could not be made more effective. For now, however, aides to Mr. Walters said he plans no drastic shifts and instead will wait for changes already made to the program to be reflected in the study.

Whether he can afford additional time depends on how Congress reacts to the current study. Both houses of Congress this year moved to cut funding for the ad program, but adjourned without any final action. In January, Congress returns and the budget will be one of the first items on the agenda. At stake: $300 million of advertising each year, with $150 million paid for by taxpayers and media companies required to donate a free ad for every paid ad.

The report, which costs $7 million a year, evaluated drug-office ads running from September 1999 through June 2002, and is based on a far more extensive survey than the last half-year report that prompted Mr. Walters' threat to ax the campaign. It is also the first to evaluate the effect of this year's drugs and terror message. It's verdict: The approach doesn't work.

"Parents reported that these ads had a greater tendency to exaggerate the drug problem," said the report, which also noted that despite the concerns, parents tended to evaluate the ads positively.

While generally negative in tone, the latest report had one silver lining: Ads aimed at discouraging kids from using drugs may not be causing them to turn to drugs. It discounted a finding in the prior report that the ads caused some girls to move to drugs, and suggested the result was a statistical anomaly from a small sample.

Mr. Walters was vocal in criticism of the ads after the last report was issued in May, drawing fire from both some congressional supporters of the program and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which does most of the ads. But this time, he's reacting more quietly.

Aides said that's because steps he took earlier-including cutting down the number of different messages, increasing the focus on negative consequences of drug use, raising the target age of the youth ads, more directly targeting marijuana use and more rigorously testing ads-wasn't reflected during most of the evaluation period.

"What he was saying was we will fix it or we won't do it," said Tom Riley, a spokesman for the office.

causing debate

Mr. Riley said the drugs-and-terror spots, the only major ads that the White House drug office does outside the Partnership, were not fairly judged by the study. He said the ads have been very successful in their intended purpose of promoting discussion and media debate about the issue.

The Partnership, too, pleaded for more time and suggested that it was the studies rather than the ads that are at fault. "We had problems with this [study] from the beginning," said Steve Dnistrian, a Partnership spokesman. "The bottom line is whether the ads are moving the needle."

Mr. Dnistrian suggested that a University of Michigan annual drug-use tracking study to be released today is a more reliable measure.

While the drugs-and-terror ads comprise a small portion of the overall drug-office advertising, this year there will be more spots. The effort kicked off Dec. 8 with 15- and 30-second commercials from WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, directed by Mr. Pytka, that feature two men, identified as Nick and Norm, discussing whether drug purchases really lead to terror.

Mr. Riley said the ads, which aren't as confrontational as those the drug office had been running, "are filling out the argument." He said the first ads making a direct link between drugs and terror raised the profile of the issue, and the new slate is intended to buttress the argument.

The 15- and 30-second ads are slated to run on news programming and perhaps occasionally on high-profile sporting events, the drug office said.

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