Drug Public Service Announcements: You could end up in art school
I recently discovered a very creative marketing campaign developed by the College for Creative Studies in Detroit that utilised parodies of alcohol and other drug public service announcements (PSA’s) to promote interest in art school. While the advertisements are not immediately recognisable in relation to a particular PSA campaign, the central themes/strategies represented were immediately identifiable.
What may be most apparent when examining the College for Creative Studies’ campaign is that a successful parody of the themes and strategies utilised by drug PSA’s is dependent upon a lack of perceived credibility of drug PSA’s.
In a recent article examining the effectiveness of drug PSA’s (Werb et al. 2011 cited in Findings) it was asserted that there is currently insufficient evidence to support the notion that such advertising is effective in reducing the intent to use drugs amongst young people. What is apparent however is that such advertising can reinforce community fears and notions regarding drug use. Let’s have a closer look at the College for Creative designs and some of the common themes represented n drug PSA’s.
The statistic is a classic method for conveying credibility. As soon as we start talking numbers there is an inference that the purveyor of knowledge has done some ‘serious study’ into the subject matter. The problem with statistics however has been famously encapsulated in the quote often attributed to Benjamin Disraeli:
“There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”
Statistics are a useful tool for the alcohol and other drugs sector, particularly when we take into account that an ideal alcohol and other drugs treatment system should be based in evidence. Statistics however are subject to interpretation, selective or otherwise and can therefore be utilised to support a range of arguments.
The excellent stigma resource ‘Why wouldn’t I discriminate against all of them?’ produced by AIVL in it’s examination of the historical and social antecedents of stigma experienced by drug users asserts that:
“The further development of statistics collection and analysis and the classification of people was an innovation that has had negative consequences in that it has allowed some people to be labelled and then perhaps stigmatised.”
The logical question then, is can drug PSA’s that utilise statistics contribute to the stigma experienced by people who use drugs in our community?
The Gateway Theory
The gateway theory is an assertion that engagement in a particular behaviour, will lead to more seriously damaging behaviours. The most commonly utilisation of the gateway theory in relation to drug use is of course that the use of cannabis will lead to the use of ‘harder’ drugs.
Putting aside the obvious problems of definition innate to the use of the terms ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ drugs, for many people the idea of cannabis as a gateway to other illicit drugs is just not credible. According to the 2010 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, 35.4% of Australians 14 years and over had ever used cannabis in there lifetime. This figure is significantly higher than prevalence rates of lifetime use of other drugs such as heroin (1.4%), amphetamines (7.0%), or cocaine (7.3%). While it is true that for many people who use illicit drugs, the first illicit drug that they were initiated to was cannabis, it is clears from the data that the majority of people who have ever used cannabis in their lifetime, only a small proportion will go on to use another illicit substance. For many drug users, the gateway theory is a flawed concept, a message that does not ring true for the many drug users who have established exactly what substances they are prepared to use and those drugs that they would not.
Know the warning signs
Because intrusive surveillance of a young person’s life is really going to lead to an open and constructive discussion about drug use right?
It is important to understand how drugs work and the potential harms associated with them, but these discussions are more likely to be productive when conducted in an environment of trust. Unfortunately a multi million dollar industry of drug detection has arisen on the back of the fears promoted in these types of campaigns, and while parents are getting better information and technology to support there detection activities, like true insurgents faced with superior firepower, young people just become more secretive.
Prevention is important but…
The consumption of drugs contains within it an inherent risk, much as driving or a number of other activities that we might undertake does. Preventing the uptake of drugs (both licit and illicit) is good policy that could reduce the overall burden of harm that our communities experience in relation to drug use. This must be done however alongside the recognition that despite our best efforts for over 100 years, that a significant number of people will continue to use drugs. Drug prevention messages therefore need to be centred in a fair and equitable representation of the facts and tailored to ensure that stigmatisation of current drug users is not a by product of the message.