Anti-Drug Ads a Flop, Says Drug Czar, Please Give Us Money for More 5/17/02

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The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), also known as the drug czar's office, has spent nearly a billion dollars in the last five years on paid anti-drug advertising aimed at reducing teen drug use. This week, drug czar John Walters admitted that the scandal-plagued program was a bust.

"This campaign isn't reducing drug use," Walters told the Wall Street Journal on Monday in the first of a series of interviews designed to preempt criticism and spin the unhappy story in a way favorable to his desire for more funds for even more anti-drug ads. "It hasn't had an effect on young people's abuse," Walters told ABC News Tuesday night. "The goal is to drive abuse down," he explained.

The taxpayer-funded advertising campaign, which has so far cost $929 million, included more than 200 TV commercials using popular performers such as the Dixie Chicks and Mary J. Blige in an effort to turn kids away from drugs. Instead, the ads appear to have had no impact whatsoever, according to the drug czar's report on advertising efficacy. (The report did not cover the recent "drugs and terrorism" campaign that began on Superbowl Sunday and have proven highly controversial, if not effective.)

Now, Walters wants more money for more ads, only this time, he said, the ads will be more effective because they will be harder-edged, much like the widely-ridiculed "this is your brain on drugs" campaign of the late 1980s and early 1990s. The incoming drug czar wants to spend another $180 million this year. In fact, Walters has spent a busy week making the difficult argument that while the ad campaigns had failed, they deserve additional funding. And he will target marijuana use, he said.

"The new ad campaign is going to provide more direct messages about the real threats," Walters promised. "We are going to turn and more directly look at marijuana."

"This is just one more example of how they deal with their failed drug war; in fact, it's like a fable for the entire drug war. If it fails, do more of the same," said Kevin Zeese, head of Common Sense for Drug Policy (, which has long criticized heavy anti-drug spending as a boondoggle that fails to achieve its stated purpose.

"If the drug war were evaluated like most other federal programs, we would have tried different strategies long ago. But our current policy seems to follow its own unique logic," said Sanho Tree, director of drug policy for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, DC-based public policy think tank. "A decline in drug use becomes evidence that we should invest more money and resources in the National Drug Control Strategy because it is working. A rise in drug use becomes proof that we are not doing enough to fight drugs, and must redouble our efforts and funding," he told DRCNet. "Under this unsustainable dynamic, funding and incarceration rates can only rachet upward," he said.

Walters said this week that his office would review its advertising campaign every six months and do pre-testing of the ads to ensure their effectiveness before they hit the airwaves. But CSDP's Zeese called that damage control and faulted the mass media for letting Walters get away with it.

"The media allowed Walters to spin this unchallenged, including his usual false statements," said Zeese. "On ABC, he said from now on we're going to review these studies -- they're already doing that. And he said we're going to pre-test those commercials -- they're already doing that."

A particularly egregious example of media mis-coverage of the controversy came Tuesday night on CNN's Crossfire -- a program that purports to pit opposing views of the right and left against each other. On Tuesday night, viewers hoping to gain perspective on the ad campaign were instead treated to the spectacle of two rabid drug warriors, former Clinton era drug czar flack Bob Weiner and current good-buddy of the Bush administration Robert Maginnis of the religious far-right Family Research Council, arguing among themselves over whether Clinton or Bush had the better failed anti-drug advertising campaign.

Some advertising professionals doubt that such campaigns will ever succeed no matter how much tweaking is done. Bob Garfield of Advertising Age magazine told ABC News that ads are good for getting people to act, but not so good at getting people not to act. "It is one thing to think about an issue in the abstract and then come face to face with the moment of impulse," said Garfield. "And I am telling you categorically: Advertising is not equipped to handle moments of impulse."

For Zeese, Walter's request for more funding is worse than misguided. "They want almost $200 million for tough new ads," Zeese said. "If they would use that money for after-school programs, that would be a huge increase in their funding and could make a huge difference. If you look at anti-drug advertising, drug prevention education and after-school programs, only the latter have been proven effective," he said.

"The others are only drug war propaganda tools. Science has shown that anti-drug propaganda doesn't work," Zeese continued. "If you want to help kids, it's really pretty simple: invest in them."

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Issue #237, 5/17/02 Medical Marijuana Wars Heat Up: Activists Announce Day of Direct Action Against DEA, Plan Emergency Response to Expected Raids | Anti-Drug Ads a Flop, Says Drug Czar, Please Give Us Money for More | New Medical Marijuana Web Site Provides Forum for Warring Views, In-Depth Exploration of Issue | Budget Crunch I: As Oklahoma Goes Broke, Drug War Fuels Ever-Increasing Prison Budgets | Budget Crunch II: Massachusetts Vote Imperils All of State's Methadone Clinics, Supporters Mobilizing | Prison Reform Advocates Blast 7 UP Commercial for Trivializing Prison Rape, Call for Boycott of Cadbury Schweppes Product | Newsbrief: Nevada Petition Drive to Legalize Marijuana Possession Underway | Newsbrief: Madison Suspends Raves at County Venue | Newsbrief: Barr Booed for Anti-Pot Remarks in Home District Event | Newsbrief: Canadian Mounties Follow US Lead, Discover Drug-Terror Connection | Newsbrief: Canada Prisons Propose Ignoring Inmate Cannabis Use | Newsbrief: Afghan Warlords Allied to US Growing Rich Off Opium Trade, Says Expert | Newsbrief: Dionne Warwick Busted for Marijuana at Airport Amidst Heightened Airline Security | Newsbrief: Pipe Bong Found in Rural Illinois Mailbox | Clarification from Dana Beal | Articles and Resources | The Reformer's Calendar

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