Benefits of graphic anti-meth ads questioned

By Anne Harding

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - The Montana Meth Project’s (MMP) anti-drug ads have been getting plenty of media attention and government funding. There’s only one problem; they may not be reducing meth use among the state’s teens, and could even be making the drug more acceptable, according to a researcher who has conducted an analysis of the project’s own survey data and press releases.

Meth use among Montana’s teens was steadily declining since 1999, well before the program’s 2005 introduction, and most of the state’s youth already had a very negative view of meth use before MMP’s launch, David Erceg-Hurn, a graduate student in psychology at the University of Western Australia in Crawley, told Reuters Health.

The MMP’s motto is “Not even once,” and its goal is to prevent first-time use of methamphetamine among young people. The program runs ads on TV, the Web, billboards, newspapers and the radio that graphically present potential consequences of meth use, such as a young addict breaking into his family’s home to get money for drugs, or a young girl being “pimped out” by her boyfriend for meth.

Erceg-Hum said he decided to investigate MMP’s claims of success because studies have shown that using scare tactics to change people’s behavior isn’t all that effective, and may even backfire. He examined several surveys conducted or commissioned by the project: one done in August 2005, before the MMP’s campaign launched the following month; another conducted six months after the program’s launch, in March 2006; one national and one state survey from 2007; and a Montana state survey from 2008.

According to Erceg-Hum, the MMP emphasizes favorable findings while obscuring negative ones. For example, the MMP often points to figures from the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Study that show a 45 percent drop in meth use among teens between 2005 and 2007-from 8.3 percent to 4.6 percent, or a 3.7 percent reduction in real terms. “The Meth Project highlights the 45 percent relative drop when promoting themselves to politicians and the media, because it sounds much more impressive than the 3.7 percent absolute drop,” the researcher said via e-mail.

“They also fail to mention that similar absolute drops in meth use occurred in the years prior to the introduction of the ad campaign. For example, meth use fell by 3.3 percent between 2001 and 2003. You don’t hear about this, because it makes the impact of the ad campaign sound much less impressive.”

The researcher also notes that MMP’s own surveys found that the percentage of teens that saw “no risk” from using meth once or twice rose from 3 percent before the campaign’s introduction to 8 percent 6 months later. The same increase was seen in the percentage that saw “no risk” to regular meth use.

These findings and other less complementary numbers didn’t appear in the program’s press release or the executive summary describing the surveys, he added, but were included in appendices presenting statistical analyses of responses to each of the survey questions. The 2007 and 2008 surveys did not include this type of information at all.

There is evidence that graphic campaigns can actually have the opposite of their intended effect, according to Erceg-Hum. Such ads could produce something called “psychological reactance” among young people, he explained, or basically rebellion against what they see as an attempt to control their behavior.

“A considerable body of research since the 1950s has shown that forceful attempts to control people’s behavior can result in psychological reactance, and unwanted “boomerang” effects,” the researcher said. Be added, such ads can scare kids so much that they try to cope with the anxiety by telling themselves that meth isn’t really so bad.

“Previous research indicates that to avoid this response, the ads have to not only scare teenagers, but also provide them with practical information about how to reduce or avoid meth use, and therefore reduce any scary risks to their health. Unfortunately, the Meth Project’s ads don’t provide this information.”

But Geoff Feinberg of GFK Roper Public Affairs & Media in New York City, which conducted the MMP’s 2007 and 2008 surveys, argues that they do indeed provide strong “circumstantial evidence” that the campaign is turning the state’s youth off on methamphetamine. “We’re finding that almost all or a majority of teens and young adults and parents have seen these ads,” Feinberg told Reuters Health. “They say that these ads are conveying to them that you can’t try meth even once.”

Peg Shea, the executive director of MMP, agrees. “We have taken that drug on in the state and things are happening in the state,” Shea said. “We’re a large part of it. We’re not the only part of it.”

SOURCE: Prevention Science, December 2008.


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