Activist Urges Change For Anti-Drug and Smoking Ads

Anti-drug and anti-smoking advertising needs to radically change its approach to be effective, according to a leading national drug policy activist.

Marsha Rosenbaum, director of the San Francisco office of the Drug Policy Alliance says the media business needs to turn its efforts toward educating teens about the dangers and health risks inherent in drug and tobacco use, not focus on encouraging abstinence.

“We’re not giving kids information,” she says. “We give them misinformation and scare tactics all designed to get them to just say ‘no.’ We have a huge credibility hole to dog out of with kids. They don’t trust us. These ads are a joke.”

Focus on the anti-drug and anti-tobacco ad campaigns have been intensified over recent weeks after US drug czar John Walker admitted that the government’s $900 billion anti-drug campaign was ineffective. This week, the American Legacy Foundation has authored a report that claims Philip Morris’ efforts to discourage smoking among youths have actually had a detrimental effect. Rosenbaum says no ad campaign should choose abstinence as its goal. A more realistic and helpful approach, she says, is to use more impactful and longer ad messages to relay the potential dangers of drugs, alcohol and tobacco. Instead of a 15 second spot, go to 60 seconds or even infomercials on TV. Instead of an ad page, go to an advertorial.

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Rosenbaum acknowledges that her stand has been controversial among the ad community as well as parents groups. But she claims it is more realistic.

“We’re trying to reach kids with these messages at a time when they’re most oriented toward experimentation and rebellion,” she says. “I’m not sure we can actually prevent that, I think the notion of advertising helping to create a drug-free America is unrealistic. We give kids Ritalin. We promote caffeine. A kid can watch prime time TV and see ads for Prozac and Viagra, and then they’re supposed to believe a spot that tells them to avoid drugs. That presents a credibility problem.”

Rosenbaum urges the ad community to lower expectations for these campaigns and restore credibility, before planning new efforts.

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