Using media for the prevention of
drug use and substance abuse
Prof. William Crano
UNODC Consultant
Professor of Psychology,
Claremont Graduate University, USA
Can Mass Media Reduce Illicit Substance Use?
Characteristics of successful media campaigns
• Always based on established theories of persuasion, not whim or
“common sense”
• Usually used subtle message appeals, not extreme threats or
extremely directive language, which often had adverse effects
• Often appealed to parents, or were associated with parental
• Sometimes were designed to educate parents about the dangers
of substance misuse
• Sometimes involved larger efforts, including school & community
Why have our media-based efforts often failed?
• The recipe for failure. Unsuccessful campaigns were:
– Never based on established theories of message-based
persuasion, but rather apparently reasonable ideas about
what to say, and how to say it
– Almost always obviously manipulative
– Often used fear-based appeals, that made unrealistic threats,
that were easily disproved or inconsistent with experience
– Never appealed to, or involved parents, schools, or the
larger community
What to do?
A quick review of the process of
persuasive change
Assume resistance by the audience
• If your suggestion is contrary to the beliefs or intentions
of the audience, they will resist by:
– Disconfirming the logic of the message
– Debasing source of the message
– Distorting the message (biased misunderstanding)
How can a message be persuasive?
• Raise question in receiver’s mind about the advisability
of an action or belief, with strong communications that
are difficult to counter
• Provide an answer to the question
• Target or tailor the persuasive message to unique
susceptibilities of the group or individual to enhance
message effects
The signature ad of the National Youth Anti-drug
Media Campaign – What do you think of it?
The goals
• Make counter-argumentation difficult, impossible, or
apparently unnecessary.
• Ensure message source is viewed as expert.
• Tailor the persuasive message to unique susceptibilities
of the group or individual to enhance message effects.
Choose your target!
– Do you want to reinforce resolute nonusers?
– Or, persuade those who are contemplating drug use to
– Or, influence users to quit?
How to beat counter-argumentation
• Use sources who have nothing to gain by audience’s
agreement (expert, scientist, trusted media person, etc.)
• Make counter-arguing difficult by media overload or
distraction (highly media active presentation that
captures attention and lowers ability to counter-argue)
• Misdirection: vary the apparent target of persuasion;
good chance of persistent change if message is strong.
Example of misdirection
• “Parents [Students], I’d like to talk to you today about an
important issue…message attacked illicit substance use
– Middle-school youth significantly more persuaded by
“Parents” ad. Why counter-argue a message to Mom?
• Arizona anti-smoking campaign –
• Second hand smoke ads directed to parents worked… on
adolescents as well as parents!
• Both of these studies succeeded because the audience did not
recognize the need to counter-argue
The “Parents” Campaign
• Parents – the anti-drug
– Unlike more costly campaigns, this smaller scale national
campaign had a positive impact on adolescents’ drug use
• Why?
– Most obviously, parents became more aware and monitored
children more closely
– Less obviously, children saw the ads, and did not counterargue – why bother? The ad was directed at Mama
Can parents really have a major
impact on their adolescent
If so, can insights from studies of
parents’ effects be transferred to
mass media campaigns?
Effects of parental monitoring
• Analysis combined data of 17 studies involving 35,000 (parent
and child) pairs of respondents
• Studied link between parental monitoring and their adolescent
children’s marijuana use
• Results indicated a significant relation between monitoring and
adolescent marijuana use: Greater monitoring = less use
– Stronger association in girls than boys
– Stronger when monitoring was defined strictly in terms of open
communication between parents and children
– Strong evidence against chance (7,358 studies of nil effects required to
render overall result statistically non-significant).
Implications for policy makers (1/2)
• Choose and target your audience [users, intenders,
resolute nonusers]
• Message must:
– Raise question
– Provide answer
– Reinforce acceptance
• Carefully work to overcome counter-arguments.
• Do not over-promise or over-threaten: the scalpel is
more effective than the axe
Implications for policy makers (2/2)
• Involve experts on theories of persuasion and
communication (the ‘creative people’ are not enough!)
• Use formative research and evaluate, evaluate,
• Involve research institutions and universities
• Involve parents if possible
• If it is not possible, make it possible
A parting note from the author of these slides
• The requirements I have
discussed are not difficult,
but they are unforgiving.
They require knowledge and
motivation. I have tried to
provide some knowledge and
hopefully, much motivation
Creative ads are wonderful, if they
follow these rules; if not, they are a
waste of time, energy, and scarce
Thank you for your kind attention. I
wish you all the best in your
important work
Prof. William Crano, Professor of
Psychology, Claremont Graduate
University, USA.

Using media for prevention ENG