WASHINGTON – The government's billion-dollar anti-drug ad campaign is making more kids want to do drugs, a private survey has concluded.
The survey, conducted by the private research firm Westat and the University of Pennsylvania, actually charted an increase in drug use among some teen-agers who saw television ads like the one that shows a bunch of kids passing around a marijuana cigarette in the garage of a suburban home á la the Fox television hit That 70's Show.
The researchers admit that the correlation between the ads and increased drug use has not been fully established, but the news is enough for National Office of Drug Control Policy Director John P. Walters to want to can the ads and start anew.
"We can do ads that can both excite curiosity when (they're) targeted at too young an age or (that) suggest everybody's doing it, which undermines what we want in changing behavior. So, we need to make sure we're testing (them) and we intend to move the campaign to older teens and target it there," Walters told Fox News.
ONDCP is also interested in focus-testing the ads before they go out on the air and getting more involved in ad development.
Currently, the ads are paid for by the government and developed by the Partnership for a Drug Free America, an anti-drug advocacy group that solicits public relations firms to donate their creativity.
As a memory tool, the ads are effective -- 70 percent of the kids surveyed said they recognized the ads.
But they don't seem to be doing the job. Of the 12- to 18-year-olds surveyed between September 1999 and December 2001, there was no decline in the number of teens who said they had no intention of trying drugs in the next 12 months.
However, of the parents surveyed, 80 percent said they were more inclined to talk with their kids about their social lives and activities.
Alan Levitt, manager of the anti-drug media campaign, said, "We're pleased with the impact the campaign is having on parents and having on their behavior in monitoring kids, but it hasn't yet affected their own kids' behavior or attitudes."
The ads, which suggest cool alternatives to drug use like skateboarding and playing electric guitar, need to move beyond "the consequences to you of drug use" angle, Walters said, and toward the "idealism of young people" that worked successfully in the new ads that link drug use to funding terrorism.
The survey did not include that most recent ad campaign, which began airing during the Superbowl and suggests that teens who buy drugs help pay for terror-related activities.
Walters admits that the nearly $1 billion spent on anti-drug messages needs to be better used, and promises to refocus the campaign. Congress is expected soon to consider re-authorizing the $18 billion-per-year ONDCP activities.
"We know advertising is powerful," Walters said. "My concern is that we can't just not respond to evidence that it's not working. Now we have the fullest possible evaluation of the early stages of the campaign with this study that shows it's not working. Fix it or end it is our objective."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.