The drugs don’t work – but neither do the ads

Last week I was puzzled to see the responses to the first advertising campaign to use Facebook Timeline.  Made by McCann Digital in Israel, it features the timeline of Adam Barak, a fictional character whose life is given the ‘Sliding Doors’ treatment.

On one side of the Timeline we see what a year with drugs looks like, on the other, we see what Adam’s year would have been like if he were drug free. The fact that Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority commissioned the ad should give you a clue as to how things pan out for each of the alter egos.

Adam Barak Facebook Timeline Campaign

While I understand the kudos it has attracted by being the first campaign to make use of Facebook’s Timeline feature, I’ve been surprised to see it described as ‘smart’, ‘clever’ and even ‘brilliant’. After all, it simply replays every stereotype in the book about drug users. The ‘junkie’ Adam loses his girlfriend, his good skin, his dignity and eventually his home. Meanwhile drug free Adam has it all – trips to the movies, dinner with friends, a job, and of course a hot looking girlfriend.

How effective an advert is this? I’m sure that many parents would accept the narrative portrayed in the campaign, but would it deter younger potential drug users? The evidence from international studies suggests not.

Last month I was asked to present evidence to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) about the effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns in reducing prevalence. I had to deliver some bad news.  The drugs may not work, but neither do the ads.

A recent international review published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2011) makes this startling admission:

“…do antidrug media campaigns prevent drug use? This first systematic review finds no strong evidence that they do and some that they can have the opposite effect.”

It cites a study of secondary school children who saw anti-cannabis ads and then were randomly allocated to engage or not engage in an on-line ‘chat’ about the ads. Here’s the worrying part:

“Compared to those who did not, youngsters who chatted following exposure to the ads subsequently recorded more pro-cannabis and less anti-cannabis beliefs or attitudes, more peer pressure to use cannabis, and less disapproval of cannabis use by adult authority figures.

Let me reiterate that point. Young people who went online having watched anti-cannabis ads, became more pro-cannabis after chatting to others who had also seen them.

The researchers postulated that this could be because the most active contributors to the on-line chats (the mouthy ones) were likely to be those that had been most exposed to cannabis previously. Therefore “their comments tended to be relatively favourable to cannabis, generating a social climate more supportive of cannabis use.”

Think about this finding in the context of Facebook, Twitter, SMS and BBM where almost everything that a young person sees, hears or consumes is shared and discussed with friends and peers. This creates a ‘social climate’ that must be understood in order to be influenced.

The biggest challenge for an anti-drug campaign is how to get young people to ‘just say no’ when they may know others who said ‘yes’ to drugs and liked it. Effective communication in this context requires an understanding of motivation, behaviour, and the power of social influence.

The Adam Barak campaign hints at the possibilities that Facebook Timeline could offer, but it doesn’t take us any closer to effectively communicating about drugs.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

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