Case Studies About the Effectiveness of the Partnership's Media-Based Educational Campaigns
Source: The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, September 7, 2006

When the work of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America comes up in discussion, two questions often arise:

1) Can drug use actually be prevented?
2) Do Partnership campaigns work?

Preventing drug use in America is not only possible, but proving to be an efficient and effective way to contend with this remarkably complex social ill. Since the Partnership was formed in 1986:

• Regular use of cocaine has been reduced by more than 70 percent;
• Regular use of any illicit drug has been cut by more than 30 percent;
• Today in America, there are 7.4 million fewer people using drugs.

Trends in Substance Abuse 8th Graders

Do Partnership campaigns work — not simply in raising awareness about the dangers of drugs, but in changing behavior?

A growing body of evidence makes it clear that the Partnership’s education campaigns are indeed effective in changing drug-related attitudes and influencing behavior. This body of evidence about the Partnership includes academically published independent research, in-market case studies and outcomes of dedicated national campaigns.

Here you’ll find case studies that provide rich examples and compelling details. Advertising and education campaigns are not solely responsible for the remarkable progress in drug trends noted above, but experts in the field believe the Partnership’s research-based communications campaigns have contributed to these encouraging developments. The American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) provided the seed money to launch the Partnership in the mid-80s. As an organization that itself strives to achieve desirable social goals, in part by facilitating the application of its members’ skills and talents and efforts on behalf of worthwhile causes, the AAAA has seen a remarkable return on its investment in the Partnership. We are quite proud of the Partnership’s accomplishments and the advertising industry’s generosity, which has made the Partnership possible. Today, the Partnership — a private, non-profit organization — is regarded as a national leader in preventing drug use among kids. You’ll see why in the following case studies: Targeting Ecstasy, Fighting "Heroin Chic" and Inhalants: A New Challenge.

Targeting Ecstasy

Between 1999 and 2001, while use of most drugs by teenagers remained stable or trended downward, teen Ecstasy use surged 71 percent. In a few short years, the number of teenagers using Ecstasy had matched or surpassed the number of teens using cocaine, crack, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine.

Responding to the increase, the Partnership launched the first comprehensive education campaign targeting Ecstasy — a synthetic, psychoactive drug with amphetamine-like and hallucinogenic properties. The campaign consisted of a two-pronged approach designed to educate teenagers about the risks of using Ecstasy and to increase parents’ awareness about this new drug in teens’ lives. Dedicated research informed the Partnership’s key communications strategies, which served as the basis for its multimedia campaign. Messages featuring dramatic, unscripted testimonials from those whose lives were impacted by Ecstasy were featured prominently in the campaign. After two years and at least $30 million in media exposure, the campaign struck a chord.

Data from the 2003 Partnership Attitude Tracking Study reported a noteworthy reversal in teenagers using Ecstasy — a 25 percent reduction between 2001 and 2003. Further, data found Ecstasy use significantly lower among teenagers frequently exposed to anti-drug advertising, and anti-drug attitudes stronger among these teens. Commenting on the remarkable turnaround in teen Ecstasy use, The Wall Street Journal said: “The reason for the decline (in Ecstasy) is simple: education. The medium: television. More and more kids now know that Ecstasy is dangerous thanks to a message that is being hammered home on the tube. Armed with that knowledge, they’re saying no.”

Fighting "Heroin Chic"

In the early 1990s, “heroin chic” gained a prominent place in America’s youth culture. Fashion models adopted the gaunt, stark look of junkies, and lines of apparel captured the dark, gothic image of people living on the edge. While use of heroin remained low across the country, the Partnership’s research indicated that a new generation of teenagers — few exposed to the hard lessons taught by heroin in generations past — viewed trying heroin as a low-risk endeavor. In fact, just one half of 12th graders perceived great risk in experimenting with the drug. Given the popularity of “heroin chic” and an increasing trend in sniffing high-grade heroin, the Partnership took preemptive action to head off a potential resurgence in heroin use.

In 1996, the Partnership set out to unsell “heroin chic.” Strategically and creatively, the Partnership’s campaign exposed the ugly, physically degrading aspects of heroin. Print campaigns portrayed images of heroin addicts talking about what the drug had done to them. Powerful television messages featured some of the same addicts. One execution followed the journey of a beautiful woman through her short career in advertising. Snapshots capture her as a young copywriter; additional pictures follow her physical descent, prompted by her foray into heroin use. The spot’s final images capture a gaunt, withered, aged woman removing a set of false teeth to demonstrate the toll heroin had taken on her body.

By 1997, tracking data reported a remarkable increase in teen perceptions of risk associated with heroin. More teens came to view the drug as dangerously addictive. The allure of heroin waned, and the Partnership’s heroin campaign was honored by the New York American Marketing Association with an award for marketing effectiveness.

Inhalants: The New Challenge

Tracking data in the mid-1990s indicated a disturbing increase in an unusual form of substance abuse: More and more kids were inhaling or “huffing” fumes from common household products —such as cleaners, paint thinners, propane, gasoline and hundreds of other products. According to the Partnership’s data, few kids viewed experimenting with inhalants as a serious or life-threatening proposition.

In the spring of 1995, the Partnership launched a national campaign designed to reverse trends in inhalant abuse. To guard against educating curious kids, Partnership campaigns were extremely cautious not to show abused products, or the actual practice of sniffing or “huffing.” Rather, the spots focused squarely on the physical risks of first-time use of inhalants, as well as the grim outcomes of engaging in what many kids regarded as a “harmless” activity. Parent targeted campaigns took a slightly different approach, recognizing the need to educate parents not only about the behavior, but also about the range of products being abused.

Careful strategic planning and superb creative executions paid off: One year after the launch of the Partnership’s attack on inhalants, tracking data reported more teens viewing inhalant use as risky, and fewer teens engaged in the behavior. At the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, investigators in charge of the prestigious Monitoring the Future study reported in their annual study of drug trends: “The turnaround in inhalant use and beliefs about its harmfulness corresponds exactly with the start of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s anti inhalant ad campaign We are inclined to credit much of the improvement in inhalant use to that intervention.” Advertising experts agreed, honoring the Partnership with another top honor for this effort.

For more information, see The Message Matters (PDF) which provides more information about the Partnership, the drug issue, and our educational campaign case studies.