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What Health Ad Researchers Think About the White House's New Anti-Opioid Campaign

The ads capture attention and may help spread awareness. But will they change how anyone acts?
The ads show actors going to scary lengths to get prescription opioids.

The ads show actors going to scary lengths to get prescription opioids.

In speeches addressing what he'll do to curb opioid addiction in America, President Donald Trump has promised an advertising campaign showing "the devastation and ruination" drug use can cause. And he's delivered: Last week, the White House's Office of National Drug Control Policy, in partnership with the non-profit Ad Council and Truth Initiative, launched four ads that seemed designed to make viewers flinch.

In each, actors re-enact true stories of opioid-addicted young people taking drastic and dangerous measures in hopes of getting a painkiller prescription. "I saw the one where the young man climbs under a car and kicks out the jack and breaks his back," says Gary Kreps, a health communication professor at George Mason University who has acted as a scientific adviser to such federal health agencies as the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "That was pretty intense."

Ads like this work well to capture viewers' attention, experts say. In focus groups, teens and young adults—the stated targets of these spots—will often say they like dramatic, scary ads, says Craig Lefebvre, who studies public-health marketing at RTI International. Unfortunately, such ads have been documented to have unintended consequences.

By themselves, they haven't been shown to create long-lasting behavioral change. They elicit revulsion and fear, feelings that people often don't deal with productively if they're not immediately shown what steps they can take to avoid a bad fate. They may simply avoid the ad, or the feelings, instead of dealing with the issue.

Echoing the concerns of experts Pacific Standard spoke with last year about emotionally affecting anti-opioid ads, researchers said they wanted to see suggested "action steps" at the end of the White House ads. The videos do conclude with "Know the truth. Spread the truth" and point to a website,, where viewers can learn more. But that wasn't enough for Lefebvre. "I wasn't clear on what the action step was," he says.

If the White House's aim is only to raise awareness, then they don't need action steps, says Jay Bernhardt, former director of the National Center for Health Marketing at the CDC, now a professor at the University of Texas–Austin. On its website, ad partner the Truth Initiative noted that its internal research suggests young people in America may need the awareness-raising; they have a "significant knowledge gap about opioids and their risks." But, Bernhardt writes in an email, "if the goal of a campaign is to change behaviors and actually improve behaviors, as I believe all government-funded health campaigns should be, then clear action steps are critical."

The Office of National Drug Control Policy did not respond to a request for comment.