Results of federal media campaigns difficult to measure

Four years after a White House office launched a $1 billion media blitz to keep kids off drugs, program officials are still struggling to determine whether the campaign has worked, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

But officials with the media campaign, run out of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, have developed an extensive survey to gauge the effectiveness of the ads. The survey, administered by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is designed to track how children in three different age groups view the campaign. The survey is ongoing, but early installments showed the campaign has had mixed results, according to Dave Murray, special assistant to the director of ONDCP.

"I would say [results] were undefinitive," said Murray, who added that Bush officials were not surprised to see this. They believe the anti-drug media campaign lacked coherence under the Clinton administration, which made it difficult for the ads to send a clear message about drug use to the public. A new series of ads that documents the link between drugs and terrorism should have better results, according to Murray.

"This is really a new generation of ads with a lot more coherence and a lot more focus," he said. The new ads, which were unveiled during the Super Bowl in January, are intended to change the discourse over drug use among teens, Murray added.

Programs that aim to change social behaviors are particularly tough to assess, GAO stated in its report (GAO-02-923), which reviewed five such programs. Besides ONDCP's media campaign, GAO reviewed programs at the Departments of Agriculture, Education, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Environmental Protection Agency.

Many of the programs studied lack relevant data, GAO found. For example, the Agriculture Department runs a program to help low-income families learn how to maintain healthy diets on a limited budget. Agriculture offices track the number of workshops they hold, but collect little information on how families change their eating habits as a result of the program.

Even if agencies track how people change their behavior, they must determine whether their programs caused these changes. In a survey of five programs that attempted to measure their effectiveness, GAO found that most neglected the role that outside factors can play.

"Most of the programs we reviewed assumed that program exposure or participation was responsible for observed behavioral changes and failed to address the influence of external factors," said the report. The ONDCP survey uses statistical methods to help rule out the influence of outside factors-including other media campaigns-on drug use.

Measuring the effectiveness of government-sponsored media campaigns is particularly difficult because agencies have little way of knowing whether their audience-in ONDCP's case, children and teens-is paying attention.

"The [anti-drug] campaign did not automatically know what portions of the audience heard or paid any attention to the advertisements, or, especially, changed their attitudes as a result of the advertisements," the report said.

The Office of Management and Budget is trying to obtain better information on program results in an effort to reward high-performing federal programs. OMB is rating 20 percent of all federal programs as part of the fiscal 2004 budget using its program assessment ratings tool, which consists of an extensive questionnaire.

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