Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Failure of “Above the Influence”, an Anti-Drug Campaign – A Critical Analysis - Yash Mehta

In 1998, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) launched the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, the largest of its kind with the overall goal “to educate and enable America’s youth to reject illegal drugs, to prevent youth from initiating use of drugs…and to convince occasional users of these…to stop using drugs” (1-3).

Initially designed as a five year-one billion dollar campaign the movement continues to this day and has been subject to a lot of critique (4). The use of brand in the NYADMC for teens first took shape as “My Anti-Drug,” which entailed messages encouraging youth to avoid drugs. In 2005, the NYADMC was rebranded “Above the Influence (ATI)”, a brand that incorporates greater information about the social influences, exposure, and pressures that may play a critical role in the initiation and continuation of adolescent drug use (5).

The “Above the Influence” campaign reaches out to adolescents via an official online website (, a collection of television commercials, and magazine commercials which were all designed to make teens in America more aware of which factors most strongly influence the decisions they make (6). The campaign also claims to reflect what teens nation-wide have reported is going on in their lives regarding peer pressure, stress, and self-control (6). However, despite the “Above the Influence” campaign’s attempts and efforts to minimize drug use among the American youth, ample evidence supports that the campaign has been ineffective and perhaps even counterproductive, “leading those exposed to an increased perception that others use marijuana” (7).

“Above the Influence”, an improved version of the original ‘My Anti-Drug’ campaign hasn’t produced the projected results; according to the results of the 2009 Monitoring the Future survey indicate that 15.7% of eighth graders, 32.3% of tenth graders, and 42.0% of twelfth graders reported lifetime use of marijuana. In 2008, these percentages were 14.6%, 29.9%, and 42.6%, respectively (8). One of the main reasons why “Above the Influence” campaign didn’t work was because of its combined reliance on Cognitive Dissonance and the Health Belief Model. These theories have received major criticism over the years and have not been able to accurately predict predicting or controlling people’s behavior (9). Another major flaw of the campaign is that it sends out are negative and mixed signals, the campaign focuses on the harmful effects of marijuana and alcohol use (both used excessively) and tries convey the message in a very cryptic way, which doesn’t help too much. Also, the prime gaffe they make is telling kids who are under the influence, ‘what to do’, which according to the Psychological Reactance theory is the biggest mistake public health campaigns make (10).

Research proving the campaign failed

Westat conducted a large study from 1999 to 2004 which looked at reported changes in attitudes, beliefs and behavior of parents and children with regard to drug-usage and compare these with self-reported measures of media exposure. They also wanted to investigate what kind of an association existed between the attitudes and beliefs held by the parents as compared to those of their children and look at what changes might be prevalent on the basis of the “Above the Influence” campaign. The study finally examined the effects of the campaign by comparing groups of people with high exposure to groups with low exposure to the commercials (11). They collected data longitudinally from a group of participants and assessed whether a relationship existed between usage of drugs and exposure to campaign advertisements and if there was any effect of the latter on the former. Their results showed that when non-drug-using youth in America were exposed to the “Above the Influence” campaign, “greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana” (11). They found that there was a positive relationship between campaign exposure and the resulting effects on parental beliefs and attitudes; however it did not correlate with affecting the attitudes, beliefs or behaviors of the children. Their reported, thus suggested that the “Above the influence” campaign had been counterproductive. Houston also refers to campaigns within the White House’s Offices of National Drug Control Policy such as the “Above the Influence” campaign as “wasteful, misleading, and ineffective anti-marijuana campaigns” (12). With all the converging evidence proving that this campaign has only been flawed and not useful for the context in which it was meant to affect the behavior regarding drug use, it is important to look at different ways to reform the same campaign and recognize the pitfalls and work on improving them to make a stronger campaign that will reach out to the intended consumer and bring about the desired change.

Why did “Above the Influence” campaign fail?

Use of wrong theories

Among many other reasons, the reliance on the combination of the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance and the Health belief Model has been a reason in the failure of the “Above the Influence” campaign. While the Theory of Cognitive Dissonance forms the basis of the television and the advertising through various media, the online site lays its foundation on the Health belief model.

Leon Festinger, created the Cognitive Dissonance Theory. This theory states that when a person’s attitude is different from his behavior about something, there is a state of dissonance. This dissonance causes the person to either change his attitude or his behavior to reduce that dissonance. To try and understand this dense statement, we should know that Festinger believed that deep in their psyche, humans needed to be in line with their attitudes and behaviors. We humans want to be unified in “thought and action”. When we counter disharmony or inner conflict between what our beliefs we strive to decrease this tension by either “changing our original thought, giving strength to the opposing thought, or letting go of the behavior” (13). On these lines the current commercials are not promoting a product but rather trying to encourage a behavior change, instead of an attitude change.

The main mistake the campaign makes is that while trying to sell the idea of ‘not doing drugs’ and to make a child take the right decision of choosing to remain sober, they create confusion and vaguely even de-motivate the child from changing his behavior and adapting an attitude change.

The Health Belief Model is psychological and attempts to predict and explain human health behaviors by focusing on an individual’s attitudes and beliefs (14). According to the Health Belief Model, an individual’s health behavior is motivated by four factors: perceived susceptibility (of a health problem), perceived severity of the potential health problem, perceived benefits of an action, and perceived barriers of taking that action (15). One of the biggest problems with the HBM theory is that it primarily focuses on individual decisions and doesn’t address social and environmental factors. What HBM assumes in an internal, rationale process where individuals assess their degree of risk and make a cost-benefit calculation about whether or not to engage in certain behavior, for e.g., intake of alcohol or drugs (16). But these behaviors will vary based on different kinds of information, motivation, interpretations made and the maturity of the individual. For example; a teenager’s intake of alcohol or drugs even after knowing the harmful side effects does not explain the Health Belief Model (16). This is where HBM fails miserably. In reality, it has been observed that people behave in predictably irrational ways and make decisions spontaneously (17). HBM fall flat in addressing to a larger population because it pre-dominantly focuses at an individual. The website of “Above the Influence” campaign is pre-dominantly based on the health belief model. The website provides an individual with all the information about alcohol and drugs and also schools them in the adverse effects of all these drugs. The website goes to the extent of mentioning the street names of all these drugs, which is not of the better things about the website.

A failed ad-campaign

Many of the messages designed by “Above the Influence” (such as the commercial where the girl who is high has a dog that talks to her, and begs her to quit using ), seem to be aimed at middle school aged youth. Talking dogs and flattened people are not realistic, and savvy teens know this and see these commercials as yet another scare tactic commercial, such as the egg “and this is your brain on drugs ” commercial from a decade ago (18). In order for these commercials to be effective, they should not exaggerate the truth, because when they do, they are alienating their target audience.

The Pete’s couch commercial shows three boys sitting on a couch, one of them starts talking into the camera. As the commercial progresses the back drop keeps changes according to the subject the boy talks about.

“I smoked weed and nobody died. I didn’t get into a car accident; I didn’t drown in some swimming pool, I didn’t OD on heroin the next day. Nothing happened. The boy describes how he felt like Pete’s couch is safe and he isn’t really going to die on it. Also, he says how it keeps you safe from the truly scary things out in the world, those being simple pleasures of life like playing with friends, or taking a girl out. But, instead you choose the safe way out. He ends it with saying that he smoked weed but did not die, but in the bargain missed out on the actual important things in life (19).

Again, the problem with this ad is that teens will counter act saying that they love this feeling of sitting on the couch and being in trance. They might react by saying this ad doesn’t apply to help because they are not frequent users of these drugs. Some teens more experienced users might say that those eleven hours are the best of their lives (20). ‘Take my chances in the real world’ gives rise to an instant feeling of poetic sarcasm (which makes me smile), but it doesn’t really strike as something that would make someone not do ‘weed’. The logical reaction by any non-frequent user would be that there is enough time to play basketball and ice-skate even after wasting those eleven hours. But then again, eleven hours is a little too extreme, isn’t it? Also, some might find their freedom to choose under threat and hence react by doing just the opposite i.e., doing weed (21).

The "Stage Hands" commercial is the one where most of the people at a party are attached to strings and some music starts which causes all of the stringed people to dance while a few who aren't attached to strings watch. Then all the dancers fall to the ground and the commercial ends with the logo and website address (22). Again, even in this commercial tries to show such radical effects of drug/alcohol intake that it is almost unbelievable. From a creative point of view the commercial does make a lot of sense, but these commercials are made to manipulate, force or motivate teens out of something they find ‘cool’ and ‘relieving’; intake of drugs and alcohol. Also, this might lead to psychological reactance, and motivate teens to intake drugs only to prove a point; that they are not like the puppets shown in the commercial. At the end of the ad after all the so-called under-influence ‘stage-hands’ fall down leaving only four people (presumably not under the influence of drugs), a voice says “If you are not in control, who is?” This could also be interpreted as “if you are not under the influence, you might be left alone, because everyone is doing it!”

Website gone wrong

A third example of a mixed message sent out by “Above the Influence” is their list of reasons why people do drugs, which can be found on the campaign’s website (23). This message is counterintuitive in that teens are being told not to use drugs, yet they are being bombarded with reasons why people their age are using drugs. If teens are on the website and come across this long list of reasons, even if the reasons are negative and/or do not necessarily apply to their own personal life, teens will be more likely to believe that lots of people are using drugs, which was previously confirmed in Westat’s study (11). If public health campaigns aim to successfully reach out and send a message across to youth in efforts to manipulate their knowledge, beliefs, attitudes and behavior, these campaigns need to do more than merely provide health facts and negative, mixed messages. The message should be positive, clear, and concise. The underlying reasons behind why company brand products are noticed, retained and popular are hidden within the message of the company’s advertisement. Figuring out what type of message attracts the American public to a particular brand product advertisement is crucial to designing or improving a public health campaign.

Above the influence campaign (A failure) - Conclusion

Teenagers smoke weed. They smoke weed because it makes them feel good. They know about the harmful effects of weed and alcohol. As mentioned in this paper the information about the harmful effects of drug use and alcohol consumption are present all over the internet. Above-the-Influence advertisements take the information and creatively try to portray drugs and alcohol as something completely negative and bad in an attempt to try and get kids to avoid using either.

Anti-Drug Campaign improved through the Psychological Reactance Theory

Research and evaluations of the on-going public health programs have affirmed the value of using specific communication strategies to promote health and prevent disease(24). Effective strategies combine theories, frameworks, and approaches from behavioral sciences, communication, social marketing, and health education (25).

The biggest problem with the current “Above the Influence” campaign is that the social influence has backfired (21, 26). Social influence can threaten people’s freedom to decide autonomously, to form their own opinions, to hold various attitudes (or none at all), and do what they feel free to do. When people feel that their freedom is threatened they experience reactance, a motivational state aimed at restoring the threatened freedom (21). This is why all public health campaigns are a pain to design, because all campaigns deal with telling people what to do, which as demonstrated by psychological reactance will have adverse effects on people. Trying to generate a social influence will not help here because congruent with reactance theory, a large literature shows that social influence is more successful when it does not threaten important freedoms (26, 27). Hence using Psychological Reactance Theory is going to help develop a successful campaign because the fundamentals of the theory lie in the effort to reduce reactance and improve compliance (28, 29).

In persuasion models, psychological reactance is presented as a mediator between communication and attitude/behavior (30). Direct restoration of freedom involves doing the forbidden act. In addition, freedom may be restored indirectly by increasing liking for threatened choice, derogating the source of threat, denying the existence of threat or by exercising a different freedom to gain feeling of control and choice (30).

Persuasive attempts of all sorts, including public health campaigns, often fail to produce the desired effect. In some cases, they even produce results directly at odds with their intents. The theory of psychological reactance provides one theoretical perspective through which these miscarriages might be understood. The theory contends that any persuasive message may arouse a motivation to reject the advocacy. That motivation is called reactance36. From this inception to the present, the theory may be called upon to explain resistance to long-term commitment. For reactant people, any lack of alternatives, high switching costs or long term contracts represents a threat to their freedom.

Proposed campaign; CHOICE

I would like to propose an Anti-drug campaign called the ‘Choice’ campaign. The target population of this campaign will be similar to that of “Above the Influence”, the adolescent youth of America. However, the essence of the ‘Choice’ campaign will be derived from the Reactance Theory. The campaign will be focused on minimizing any chances of reactance from the target population. At the same time, the campaign will attempt to plug all the loopholes of the “Above the Influence” campaign.

‘Choice’ will be a positive campaign which will be contrary to the current anti-drug movement.

The most important aspect of this campaign will be that it will not tell anyone what to do. The ad campaign will try and imbibe the spirit and the motivation in an individual to stay sober i.e., not to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

‘Choice’ will be a dual campaign i.e., it will feature two different kinds of advertisements and media campaigns; Choice–A & Choice–B.

Choice-A will on real life stories. They will not focus on any kind of research or models or numbers. The ad-campaign will have relatives of people who have either lost someone to alcohol or drug abuse or people who have sobered up themselves. The people on screen will not talk about how ‘everyone should stop drinking alcohol or doing drugs’, because it will induce reactance. These advertisements will focus on the lives of these people; they will talk about how they lost someone to drug / alcohol abuse or how one of their relative came out of it. Former drug/alcohol addicts will come on air to talk about their own stories. This approach is going to help score a lot of points because adolescents are going to be able to relate to the victims and survivors of alcohol / drug abuse.

Commercials – This part of the campaign will feature four commercials, which will try and add the perfect blend of celebrities and ‘the common man’. The first scene will have relatives, manager and colleagues of George Best [a Northern Irish professional soccer player, best known for his years with Manchester United. He was a winger whose game combined pace, acceleration, balance, two-footedness, goal scoring and the ability to beat defenders. He was one of the first celebrity footballers, but his extravagant lifestyle led to problems with alcoholism which curtailed his playing career and eventually led to his death in November 2005 at the age of 59. His cause of death was multiple organ failure brought on by a kidney infection, a side effect of the immuno-suppressive drugs he was required to take after a liver transplant. (31)] His colleagues will talk about how great a player he was and talk about the great times they had. Mid-way into the scene they will talk about George Best becoming the best player, comparing him to the likes of Pele, if he hadn’t been a slave of his alcoholism. This will be said with the truest of emotions, because Best was actually that good.

The second commercial will showcase the families, friends and coaches of a group of high school and college athletes who lost out on glory because they gave into their temptations. This commercial will again begin with short interviews of the important people in the lives of those players. Talking about the moments they cherished with them and then how they felt during the downfall of those players. This is also include some of the success stories of people who were under heavy and moderate influence of alcohol and drugs and how they fought their temptations and emerged victorious on the other side.

The third and the forth commercials will be based on common people; the boy next door, the girl next door or any person who an adolescent child will be able to relate to. Similar to the previous commercials, there will be stories of victories and losses, but all the stories will be captured in such a way that they reflect true and genuine emotion.

True and genuine emotion will help garner the trust of anyone who watches the commercials.

Choice-B will be a ‘happy campaign’. Advertisements in this part of the campaign will be positive, bright and in high spirits. These advertisements will be focused on showing the positives of being sober, without actually ever mentioning the harmful effect of alcohol or drug abuse. This campaign is going to focus on commercials which project a very happy and bright picture of life.

The commercial for this campaign will be more or less on the lines of the Pepsi commercial which featured during the Super Bowl 2009. The one with Bob Dylan’s forever young. The commercial will compare two ages; around forty years apart, it shows happy people, children hugging their fathers/mothers (who have returned from Vietnam and Iraq respectively), people dancing to roll and roll and to the tunes of house music in a club respectively, and comparing various other things from two different generations. The only common thing between the two generations will be happiness and the soberness (not under the influence of alcohol or drugs). The foundation of this commercial will be derived from the psychological reactance theory (21) and hence, there will be no mention of what the viewer of this commercial should do. But the commercial sure will indirectly link happiness with soberness.

Another part of the “Choice” campaign would be to completely upgrade and revamp the website. The website ( will be changed to ‘’. The website will air the commercials and give stories in greater detail of all the characters spoken about in the “Choice-A” commercials. The website will give out information about drugs, but only the amount of information which is needed. The website won’t be about facts or research or number of people under the influence, it won’t say how dangerous being under the influence is, it won’t talk about the population, but it will talk about ‘one child who died last week’, it will talk about the sorrow and grief of his parents, his relatives and everyone. This the website will be converted into an online portal where visitors will be able to relate to the things mentioned and they will react to it in a positive way because they are not striped of their freedom to decide.

Choice – Tackling what failed

Choice, the campaign will try and plug in the loop-holes that the current campaign has. Choice, uses three things; motivation, logic and positivity to try and influence the viewers to stop using drugs and drinking alcohol. In contrast to the current campaign that uses information and the portrayal of drug and alcohol use as something that is terribly bad. Choice will acknowledge the fact that so many teenagers indulge in drugs and alcohol abuse because they “increase or decrease the release and the synthesis of endogenous opioid peptides -- endorphins released during excitement, pain and orgasm -- in distinct brain regions important for drug addiction”. The campaign will be such that teens will be able to relate to it and they will be motivated to stop the abuse. The focus of the campaign would be to help teens understand that, drug and alcohol abuse might feel good and even great right now, but it might be more than harmful “we (the teens)” can anticipate in the long run. And since this will come from people they look up to and respect they will be motivated to make a life-style change.


Alcohol and Drug abuse is a major problem in the United States, as shown in this paper, and it needs to be looked in a much more efficient and scientific manner. The ‘Choice’ campaign has everything that is missing in the current anti-drug campaigns going on in the United States. “Choice” tries to get into the psyche of the adolescent mind and manipulate it into generating the desired behavior without generating any reactance.

References –

1. Journal

Kelder SH, Maibach E, Worden J, et al. Planning and initiation of the ONDCP National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. J Public Health Manag Pract. 2000;6: 14–26.

2. Report of Other Document

Office of National Drug Control Policy. National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Available at: Accessed December 28, 2005.

3. Report or other Document

Office of National Drug Control Policy. National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: campaign overview. Available at: factsheets/overview.html. Accessed December 28, 2005.

4. Report or other Document

Office of National Drug Control Policy. National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign: marijuana initiative. Available at: Accessed December 28, 2005.

5. Hansen W.B., Graham J.W. (1991). Preventing alcohol, marijuana, and cigarette use among adolescents: peer pressure resistance training versus establishing conservative norms. Preventive Medicine, (20), 414-430.

6. Website,

7. Report or Other Document

Amentano, Paul: "Must Not See TV: Stoners in the Mist", page 18. High Times, September 2008

8. Report or Other Document

National Institute on Drug Abuse/University of Michigan, 2009 Monitoring the Future Study Drug Data Tables, December 2009

9. Book Chapter

Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K. & Lewis, F.M. (2002). Health Behavior and Health Education. Theory, Research and Practice. San Fransisco: Wiley & Sons. Individual health behavior theories (Ch. 4). In: Edberg M. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007, pp. 35-49.

10. Book Chapter

Dillard J.P. & Shen L. (2005). On the Nature of Reactance and its Role in Persuasive Health Communication. Communication Monographs. 72 (2), 144-168.

11. Report or Other Document

United States Government Accountability Office. Contractor’s National Evaluation Did Not Find That the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use. Washington, DC:GAO 06-818, 2006.

12. Houston A. Marijuana Policy Project. “Above the Influence”of Wasteful Spending. District of Columbia: Marijuana Policy Project.

13. Report of other document


14. Book

Glanz, K., Rimer, B.K. & Lewis, F.M. (2002). Health Behavior and Health Education. Theory, Research and Practice. San Fransisco: Wiley & Sons. Individual health behavior theories (Ch. 4). In: Edberg M. Essentials of Health Behavior: Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2007, pp. 35-49.

15. Report

Choi K, Yep GA, Kumekawa E. HIV prevention among Asian and Pacific Islander men who have sex with men: a critical review of theoretical models and directions for future research. AIDS Education and Prevention 1998; 10(Supplement A): 19-30.

16. Book Chapter

Essentials of Health Behaviour. Social and behavioural Theory in Public Health.

17. Website

18. Website

19. Report

20. Website

21. Journal Article

Brehm J.W. (1966). A theory of Psychological Reactance. Academic Press, NY.

22. Website

23. Website

24. Report

25. Report

26. Book

Brehm J.W. & Brehm S.S. (1981). Psychological Reactance. Wiley and Sons, NY.

27. Book

Clee MA. & Wicklund R.A. (1980). Consumer behaviour and psychological reactance. Journal of Consumer Research. 6 (March), 389-405.

28. Journal Article

Brehm, J. W., &Cole, A. (1966). Effect of a favor which reduces freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 420–426.

29. Journal Article

Brehm, J. W., & Mann, M. (1975). Effect of importance of freedom and attraction to group members on influence produced by group pressure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31, 816–824.

30. Journal Article

Dillard J.P. & Shen L. (2005). On the Nature of Reactance and its Role in Persuasive Health Communication. Communication Monographs. 72 (2), 144-168

31. Website


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