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This Is Your Brain On Drugs

This Is Your Brain On Drugs

This Is Your Brain On Drugs

Posted Thursday August 07th, 2014 by in Analysis + Strategy.

In the March edition of Advertising Age, writer E.J. Schultz described the downward trend of teenage anti-drug ad spending from 1999 to 2013.

Of course, we know what the end of this study looks like: the legalization of marijuana and the widespread proliferation of the topic of cannabis in the national vernacular. As a household product like any other, marijuana has become an interesting case study in the effectiveness of advertising. Thanks to government funding, we can actually examine what national advertising can – or can’t – do when it comes to driving a population to action.

Let’s jump ahead for a moment to the conclusion: In 2003, an average 70% of high school students saw anti-drug ads while overall use was around 32%, according to The Future Study out of the University of Michigan. In 2013, an average 28% of high school students saw anti-drug ads, while about 32% of the population used marijuana.

Conclusion: Ads don’t work on drug use. Or do they?

Well, it depends on whom you ask. Some independent studies show great declines in middle and high school usage during heavy ad spending, but the majority of studies are inconclusive. As advertisers, there are other factors we must consider when it comes to analyzing the effectiveness of advertising on drug use. One factor hinges on the advertising tenet of frequency: put something into the consumer’s mind enough times, and that consumer will take interest.

Today’s marijuana debates are a perfect example – now that it’s in the news and top-of-mind for consumers, we are seeing an uptick in consumption.

However, I posit that this uptick isn’t widely due to the media’s direct engagement with the drug. Instead, I turn to advertising’s ‘ace,’ the most important thing that money can’t buy: word-of-mouth. What we’re seeing on the news is acceptance by our peers, in one form or another.

Whether it’s a television story about Denver’s 4/20 event or a now-acceptable casual dinner conversation in upstate New York, our peers – the most personal drivers of our own behaviors – are nodding their heads in approval slowly but surely, one at a time.

When it comes to teenagers – the most influenced of our population – the true determinant of “cool” is the peer group. Can national advertising overcome one teenager’s desire to be accepted, or an entire nation of adults campaigning for acceptance of this product? That remains to be seen. One thing is for sure – it’s a complicated world out there for a teen in today’s drug environment. As parents, teachers, and other role models take to our newly-legalized recreation, advertising is going to need a lot of help to overcome what is sure to be a legal, growing, positive word-of-mouth campaign.


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