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Anti-Drug Ads on Television in Sharp Decline

Once a ubiquitous and contentious presence on national television, anti-drug public service announcements have largely become a thing of the past.

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By Paul Gaita

03/26/14

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In case you haven't noticed, commercials like the infamous “This is Your Brain on Drugs” (1987) spot from Partnership for a Drug Free America, have largely been put out to pasture. A combination of media scrutiny, which declared the ads ineffective, and congressional cuts to the media budget for the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which at one point boasted a war chest of $100 million, have contributed to their unceremonious demise.

Today, anti-drug campaigns must jockey for pro-bono work from ad agencies and free airtime from media companies with a host of other advocacy groups, including those supporting cancer research and reducing texting while driving. As a result, only 32 percent of 8th graders have reported seeing anti-drug ads on a weekly basis – a precipitous decline from as recent as 2003, when 76 percent reported the spots as part of their television intake, according to a survey by the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study.

Despite such daunting prospects, the Partnership at Drugfree.org continues to launch new anti-drug PSAs for television audiences, including a pair of spots directed and narrated by actor Eric Stoltz as part of the “Mind Your Meds” campaign for The Medicine Abuse Project. But the organization still faces an uphill battle in terms of budget and negative perception of their efforts. Mike Males, a senior research fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, has regarded anti-drug ads as ineffective while adding, “The people who are inclined to abuse drugs are probably not big consumers of ads.”

Data culled from the Monitoring the Future study offered only mixed results: 47 percent of eighth graders polled by the survey said that anti-drug ads made them less likely to use drugs in the future to a “great or very great extent.” That figure was up from 2000 numbers, which topped out at 40 percent, but was down from 2012 figures, which reached 49 percent.

Take a walk down memory lane with the original "This is Your Brain on Drugs" ad:

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