Agency launches anti-drug ads on video-sharing site

It has been almost two decades since the image of a fried egg, accompanied by the phrase "This is your brain on drugs," entered American culture by way of a public service TV ad sponsored by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Times change, and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy has joined the Internet age.

On September 19, the ONDCP became the first Cabinet-level agency to promote its message on the popular video-sharing Web site YouTube, posting nine ads as part of its latest strategy to combat illegal drugs. "We call [kids] 'screen-agers,' because they spend so much time with televisions and computers," said Robert Denniston, the director of the ONDCP's anti-drug media campaign. "We've nearly doubled our interactive presence within the last two years."

The advertisements, which are also running on TV, do not dramatize the physical dangers of marijuana, highlight frightening statistics, or dwell on marijuana's potential as a "gateway drug" to heroin or crack cocaine. Instead, the ads say that even if smoking marijuana seems like the "safest thing in the world," it's more fun to get out and take the risks of everyday life.

"I smoked weed and nobody died," a teenager says in one ad. "We sat on Pete's couch for 11 hours. Now, what's going to happen on Pete's couch? Nothing.... Me? I'll take my chances out there."

YouTube users have called up the ads more than 25,000 times since the campaign began -- not a lot compared with hit videos that quickly pull in more than a million views. But because the online ads can reach teenagers who don't watch much TV, Denniston believes that the number of channel views has already made the online campaign a success.

Adapting such advertising to the Internet may be risky business, however. A simple search of the video-sharing site shows that viewers have posted more than 30 parodies of the ONDCP ads.

The effectiveness of government-produced ads in curtailing drug use has long been a matter of debate. At the start of its media campaign in 1998, the ONDCP hired Westat, a firm that specializes in research for government, to gauge whether the advertisements were decreasing drug use among youth.

Westat analyzed parents' and teenagers' responses to the ads and concluded that the messages did not lead young people to disapprove of drug use. In fact, researchers concluded the opposite, finding that in some cases the ads increased first-time marijuana use.

Westat released the results to the White House office in 2004. But the report went no further for a year and a half, until the Government Accountability Office demanded its release in August 2006. According to John Carnevale, the former director of budget and planning for the ONDCP, the office did not like the report's conclusions and chose to sit on it -- even though Congress had appropriated $1.2 billion between 1998 and 2004 for the ONDCP's media campaign, according to GAO data.

The GAO recommended that Congress trim the budget for the campaign until the ONDCP provided credible evidence that it had reduced youth drug use. The GAO was very much out of its element in issuing those strict recommendations, according to J. Marc Wheat, the staff director and chief counsel for the House Government Reform subcommittee that oversees the ONDCP.

Meanwhile, groups that want to decriminalize drugs say that the ad campaign undercuts the ONDCP's stated goals. "The fact that they've known these ads backfire and still allowed the program to continue -- while hiding this report from Congress and the public -- makes the White House complicit in higher rates of drug use by children," said Aaron Houston of the Marijuana Policy Project.

Since 2001, the White House reports, youth drug use in the United States has declined 20 percent. If that's true, in view of Westat's findings, it's essential to determine the cause before moving further, Carnevale contends.

Though the latest ads take a less strident approach than earlier campaigns, he argues, no one knows whether their benefits will outweigh their cost -- or whether they will produce any benefits at all. The administration requested $120 million for the fiscal year 2007, an increase from $99 million last year.

"We know that media ads work incredibly well in a lot of different areas of policy and society, but there must be something special about the drug issue that complicates this approach," Carnevale said. "The new ads sound to me like just another approach to something that has already had a negative effect."

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