Unlike adults, teenagers are impressionable: that is what we always hear. People younger than 17 are banned from seeing movies with partial nudity, violence, drug-use, or swear words on the pretext that such movies might lead the impressionable teens to go out and use swear words themselves. (When turned away from the box office, youths will sometimes demonstrate for the ticket-seller that they already use swear words, but for some reason that demonstration does not often gain them admission.)
Every time someone tries to take advantage of this impressionability, though, it seems to vanish like a mirage.
The latest example surfaced when the United States government spent $929 million over five years on ads to lecture youth about drugs (1). A recent study showed these ads had no effect whatsoever in reducing drug-use. In fact, they may have caused drug-use to rise (2).
Our government could have done some good with that $929 million. Imagine if they had spent that money on libraries. Or health care. Or national security. Instead they gave it to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and the Partnership blew it lecturing teenagers.
Those who are serious about solving America's drug problem might wonder why the ads focused on youth. After all, teenagers make up only 2 percent of all drug-deaths in America (3); a 40-year-old is 15 times more likely to die from illegal drugs than is a high schooler (4). Drug-use by teenagers, in fact, is so minimal that a federal survey of hospital emergency rooms showed this surprising result: the number of teenagers admitted to emergency rooms every year for problems involving illegal drugs is barely one-half the number of teenagers admitted for problems involving aspirin (5).
Politicians like to focus on children and teenagers so they can appeal to voters concerned about drugs without alienating voters who use drugs. This is the same reason we have an age-limit on alcohol — a political battle-scar left from the fight over Prohibition.
As for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, they too like to focus on the relatively small drug-problem of youth while ignoring the much larger drug-problem among adults. Apparently, they too fear alienating adult drug-users. Judging the behavior of adults would hurt their fund-raising and hurt their clout with the average American. Average Americans do not like to have their own behavior questioned; they feel better when someone else's behavior is called into question, especially if it deflects attention away from themselves.
I remember once at a public library, I was waiting for another patron to get off the internet computer so I could use it. As the man closed his Explorer window, he got a surprise: a pornographic ad popped up, the kind you accumulate by visiting porno sites. The 40-ish man's face turned red and, though I didn't react, he felt the need to tell me, "Uh ... I didn't put that there. It was probably some kids. You know, they're the ones who really look at that stuff." Uh-huh. Kids. Apparently, there are many adults who prefer to deal with drugs the same way this man deals with pornography: cover-up your habit by putting the focus on youth. The Partnership plays to those adults perfectly. In return, it gets respect and prestige from those people, from the media, and from politicians.
So our government spent nearly $1 billion on this campaign. Instead of spending it on national security, they gave all this money — your money — to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to run ads scolding youth for causing America's drug problem and lecturing youth to stop.
While youth are only a tiny portion of the drug-problem, some would argue, it is still a legitimate strategy to target youth because youth are more impressionable than adults. This theory was undermined by these very ads. If youth are so impressionable, telling them drugs are bad should make a big impression on them and cause the minimal drug-use among youth to disappear entirely. What were the actual results of these ads? Not good.
The University of Pennsylvania, working with Westat (a private research firm) studied the ads and their effects. The ads did not decrease drug-use one iota. In fact, data suggested the ads increased drug-use among teenagers to a small degree (6). The failure to decrease drug-use was proven. The effect of increasing drug-use has not yet been proven conclusively; that part requires further study. In any event, it is clear youth are not as easily manipulated as some would have us believe.
John P. Walters, Policy Director of our National Office of Drug Control, pulled the ads after this study became public. Explaining the situation, Walters suggested one reason for the boomerang effect: the ads "suggest everybody's doing it [i.e. using drugs], which undermines what we want in changing behavior" (7). In other words, by exaggerating teen drug-use, the ads left young viewers with the misimpression that drugs were popular among their peers, that using drugs might be necessary to fit in.
Another explanation for the effect, if this effect is proven to exist at all, is that youth are offended by the ads, offended by the scapegoating and the insulting attempts to manipulate them. Young viewers are left to feel that by using drugs, they can "give the finger" to those responsible for insulting them with these ads.
It did not have to be this way. If the ads had simply told the truth, perhaps young viewers would take pride in their generation avoiding the mistake that has snared so many of their elders in drug-addiction leading to death. This would encourage youth to see avoiding drugs as the way to be cool and fit in with their peers, a way to be cooler than their elders. But telling the truth might make older people feel bad about their own generation. It might make them feel insecure, knowing that their own behavior can be judged. And these older people are the ones who vote. They are the ones who run our media and the ones who contribute money to organizations like the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. So the politicians and the Partnership did nothing to upset them. Instead, they spent nearly $1 billion of our money scapegoating youth and actually encouraging youth to try drugs, while making older people feel good.
Our money could have been put to better use.
Additional Food for Thought:
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America should have understood the boomerang effect of those ads. One of their biggest funders is Philip Morris (8), and Philip Morris has made millions by deliberately orchestrating this boomerang effect with tobacco.