Scared Straight: Graphic Anti-Meth Ads Work

Anti-Meth-PSAWhile some previous anti-drug ad campaigns, like “Just Say No,” elicited understandable skepticism, the right kind of ads can have a dramatic deterrent effect, resulting in lower rates of drug abuse and addiction among people who are exposed to the messages. That’s according to a new study by researchers at the W. P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University, forthrightly titled “How Disgust Enhances the Effectiveness of Fear Appeals.”

The article, published in the Journal of Marketing, deals with PSAs intended to discourage viewers from using crystal meth, one of the most addictive and deadly drugs in history. Luckily for the anti-meth campaigners, it also has an array of stomach-churning side effects, which are easily conveyed in shocking true-life images of haggard meth addicts.

To determine the effect of disgust on target audiences, the study compared college students’ reactions to several kinds of ads, with the same ad copy but different images.

The first variety -- the control group -- used emotionally neutral images, such as two teens sitting together. The second variety only sought to evoke fear of the drug by pairing images of coffins or graves with the ad copy. The third variety -- “fear and disgust” ads produced by the Montana Meth Project -- contained the additional element of gruesome, graphic depictions of meth’s effects on the human body.

While the emotionally neutral and “fear-only” ads produced little change in the college students’ perceptions of the drug or intentions to avoid it, the study found much higher rates of “distancing behaviors” following exposure to the “fear and disgust” ads, including the intention to avoid taking the drug in the future. 

The findings are germane to additional public-health publicity campaigns other than anti-meth PSAs.

Most notably, the FDA is trying to force cigarette manufacturers to include graphic images of cancers and other negative health impacts in the health warnings on packs of cigarettes beginning in September. Cigarette companies have protested the move and last week a U.S. district court judge blocked the campaign; however, the FDA has vowed to continue the legal battle to have the images included.

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