Using media for the prevention of
drug use and substance abuse
Prof. William Crano
UNODC Consultant
Professor of Psychology,
Claremont Graduate University, USA
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Can Mass Media Reduce Illicit Substance Use?
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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
monitoring
• Sometimes were designed to educate parents about the dangers
of substance misuse
• Sometimes involved larger efforts, including school & community
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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
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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)
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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
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The signature ad of the National Youth Anti-drug
Media Campaign – What do you think of it?
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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
resist?
– 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
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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
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Can parents really have a major
impact on their adolescent
children?
If so, can insights from studies of
parents’ effects be transferred to
mass media campaigns?
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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).
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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
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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,
evaluate
• Involve research institutions and universities
• Involve parents if possible
• If it is not possible, make it possible
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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
resources
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.
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