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Graphic Anti-Meth Ads Ineffective

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Extremely graphic ads meant to discourage teens from using methamphetamines may be having the opposite effect, according to a study just published in the journal Prevention Science.

Last month, Miller-McCunereported on a new study that found anti-tobacco ads that combine fear and disgust are apparently counterproductive. Now, research by psychologist David Erceg-Hurn of the University of Western Australia suggests the same may be true for anti-drug spots.

Erceg-Hurn looked at advertising created by the Montana Meth Project (MMP), which graphically shows the alleged consequences of using methamphetamines “just once.” Those consequences, according to scenes portrayed in the print and television spots, include rape, prostitution and “picking for bugs under your skin.”

The nonprofit organization boasts on its Web site that it is “the larger advertiser in Montana, reaching 70 to 90 percent of teens three times a week. This is saturation-level advertising.”

It boasts that its ad campaign has reduced meth use in the state by 45 percent among teens and 72 percent among adults since it began in 2005. Erceg-Hurn expressed deep skepticism of that claim, noting that “meth use had been declining for at least six years before the ad campaign commenced.”

He points out in his study that the percentage of Montana teens who strongly disapprove of methamphetamine has steadily gone down during the period the ads have been on the air: from 98 percent in 2005 to 91 percent in 2008. “The trend data suggest that there is now less stigma attached to taking methamphetamine and other drugs than before the MMP’s advertising campaign commenced,” he concludes.

Erceg-Hurn told the Sydney Morning Herald that teens “look at those ads and they don’t see themselves or their friends because the first few times they use ice (a nickname for meth), they simply feel euphoria. (Unlike the kids depicted in the ads) they are not becoming prostitutes or killing their parents, so they reject the message. These ads could be backfiring, and it’s time for a new approach.”

His study concludes that “on the basis of current evidence, continued public funding and rollout of MMP-style graphic advertising campaigns should be put on hold, pending the outcome of future scientific study of the MMP’s efficacy.”