Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Not Even Once: A Critique of The Meth Project’s Graphic Ad Campaign –Elyse

In 2010 The Meth Project “Not Even Once” Campaign was named as the third most effective philanthropy in the world (1). The program originated in 2005 in Montana as the Montana Meth Project and has since spread to Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii and Georgia (2). In 2005, Montana had one of the highest rates of meth use in the country and in 2006, 50% of those incarcerated in Montana were in jail for meth-related offenses (3). Methamphetamine use has been shown to have a substantial economic burden of roughly $23.4 billion in the United States and is predominantly used in Western and Midwestern states (3). Evaluations of supply-side meth interventions, such as regulating the sale of products containing ephedrine, have shown to be expensive and only temporarily effective (3). The Montana Meth Project was started by business executive Thomas Siebel and was primarily aimed at teenagers. The campaign is a demand-side intervention designed to prevent the first time use of methamphetamine (3). It uses graphic television, radio, internet, billboard and print ads in a saturation-level ad campaign that show the negative consequences of meth use (4).

The explicit nature of the ads has been controversial. One billboard shows a young couple sitting on the floor of a room with the blinds closed. The teenage boy is looking past his girlfriend and the girl is looking at the floor. The writing on the billboard is says, “My girlfriend would do anything for me. So I made her sell her body” (4) The underlying message of the ad seems to be that meth addicts become so desperate they will do anything for money, even force their significant others into prostitution.

The video ads are just as graphic. One of the video ads begins with a teenager in a gray sweatshirt sitting in a Laundromat. As he sits waiting for his wash cycle to finish, a crazed young man walks through the door and begins yelling at the other Laundromat patrons to give him their money. He then proceeds to push a middle aged women on the ground, punch a man in the face, and scream at a woman with her young daughter and baby while stealing wallets and scrambling for money that they throw at him in terror. He then runs up to the young man in the gray sweatshirt who realizes that he’s looking at a future meth addicted version of himself. The meth-faced version grabs the sweatshirt of the surprised teen and screams in fury, “This wasn’t supposed to be your life!” (4) The message here is that meth will turn you into an unrecognizable, violent monster.

While these ads are shocking and memorable, their effectiveness is questionable. The Meth Project website states that since the introduction of the campaign teen Meth use in Montana has declined by 63% and Meth-related crime dropped by 62% (2). Other studies show otherwise. Data from the Montana Youth risk Behavior Study shows that from 2005 to 2007 the absolute drop in teen Meth use was 3.7% which is less impressive than the statistic the Montana Meth Project portrayed as a relative 45% drop (5). Studies also show that Meth use was already on a decline before the campaign began (5). From 2001 to 2003, Meth use fell 3.3%. Accounting for the pre-existing downward trend, the impact of the campaign is almost statistically insignificant (5). While The Meth Project has gained international praise and recognition, the campaign’s use of fear appeals to influence behavior may actually be having the opposite effect of the ads’ intentions. By implementing narrative rationality and action recommendations into their ads, The Meth Project may be able to develop more effective behavior change in their target population as well as reducing their psychological reactance response to the campaign.

Critique 1: Lack of Action Recommendation in Application of Drive Reduction Model

Fear arousing communications have been featured prominently in many public health interventions, especially in anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns (6). The Meth Project relies heavily on the use of fear to invoke behavior change. Fear arousing communications consist of two parts: fear appeal and action recommendation (7). The fear appeal is meant to emphasize the individual’s susceptibility to the health risk as well as its severity. The action recommendation is meant to give a method of reducing or eliminating the health risk.

Many fear campaigns are based on the drive reduction model, proposed by Hovland, Janis and Kelley in 1953 (8). This model was developed in the 1950’s, and suggests that fear can act as a driver, or motivational factor (8). In the case of fear appeals, the motivational force is presented as threatening information. In response to this driver, an individual will search for actions to reduce the threat. Thus, behavior that effectively reduces the emotional tension caused by the threat will become enforced. However, if the action recommendation does not adequately reduce the threat, the individual may downplay the severity of the threat, actively reject the message content or ignore it altogether (8).

The effectiveness of a fear arousing communication depends on the level of fear invoked and the ability of the recommendation to decrease the fear (8). Many studies have shown that when the amount of fear invoked increases, the resulting change in behavior is also greater (7); however, some research has shown that higher levels of fear may result in rejection or ignoring of the message (7). This occurs when the recommendation is not considered adequate in satisfying the emotional tension of the threat. Not only must the recommendation be able to reduce the tension, but the individual must also feel that they have the self-efficacy to successfully perform the response.

The Meth Project uses fear as its main form of persuasion. The TV ads are difficult to watch. One particularly disturbing ad shows a girl taking a shower. As she showers she notices blood going down the drain. She looks to the floor of the bathtub and sees a crumpled creature looking up at her. She screams and realizes that it’s her future-self on meth. The scabbed, bleeding version of herself looks up at her and pleads “don’t do it”(4). This ad is visually disturbing and invokes a high level of fear into the viewer. Some of the ads have been deemed so disturbing that parent groups and religious groups have requested that they be removed (9). The billboard showed an apparently emotionless girl pinned down from behind by a faceless man with the words “15 bucks for sex isn’t normal. But on Meth it is” written across the ad (4). Montana agreed to remove the billboards containing this message (9). While this ad has been removed, other billboards that remain include those showing a Meth addict picking at his scabs and a mom who has been mugged by her own child for drug money (4).

While there is no lack of threatening messages, The Meth Project fails to provide any form of recommendation to reduce the threat. There are 19 television ads, 19 print ads and billboards and 70 radio spots; however, none of them mention any information or suggestions on how to avoid meth use or reduce their risk of coming into contact with the drug. They also do nothing to empower the viewer or increase their perceived ability to reject the drug. By not providing any form of behavior suggestion or recommendation, viewers use the defensive mechanisms mentioned earlier to cope with the emotional tension.

Intervention 1: Provide Action Recommendation with Delivery of Fear Appeal

As discussed earlier, there are two requirement of the action recommendation. Firstly it must reduce the emotional tension caused by the fear appeal. Secondly the perceived efficacy of the action recommendation must be greater than the perceived fear and the person carrying out the action recommendation must feel they are capable of performing the action.

The threat that the campaign uses as its fear appeal is that using meth can possibly transform a meth-free youth into a desperate, crazy and violent addict. One of the main goals of the campaign is to reduce the first time use of meth. Therefore, the goal of the action recommendation should be to inform youths on how to actively avoid initial use of the drug. This can be achieved by providing viewers with strategies on how to handle situations that could potentially result in them trying meth for the first time. Ads could incorporate scenes such as a teenage boy offering his friend some meth. He asks him if he wants to try it, but his friend immediately declines. Another example could show a group of teenage girls walking into a house party. Upon seeing people using meth, they leave to go to another party that is drug free.

In order to promote self-efficacy the ads should emphasize the ease of completing these recommendations. For example, after the teenager says no to his friend, the friend accepts his refusal, and puts the meth away rather than trying to peer pressure him. The ad showing the girls can show them apologizing to the hosts of the first party and arriving at the second party, which is just as lively as the first. By depicting these situations as normal and non-threatening, the action recommendation becomes easy to successfully accomplish, and youth develop the self-efficacy to carry out the recommendations.

The fear appeals must still be included in the ads in order to provide the viewers with the drive to carry out the action recommendation. The ads should be run as a split screen where one side shows the teenagers successfully carrying out the recommendation while the other side shows the same teenagers doing meth for the first time with the end result showing them as the same meth addicts depicted in the original ads. This will help to further promote the benefits of the action recommendation.

Critique 2: Anti-Meth Ads Possess Little Truth and Credibility

The Narrative Paradigm, a model proposed by Walter Fisher, claims that all people are storytellers and they develop understanding of their lives based on narrative context (10). In this theory narrations are symbolic words or actions that can take the form of “personal accounts, history, biography, argument, drama, poetry, and art”. Fisher coins these as “good reasons” (10). “Good reasons” provide meaning for “those who live, create, or interpret them” and are the driving force behind decision making (10). According to this theory, behavior is guided by the narratives because people use personal narratives as a way of understanding their lives. This in turn is what drives them to make decisions, and create meaning and perceptions. More specifically, narrative context is the basis for which an individual develops their rational and reasoning (10).

The Narrative Paradigm considers every person as a rational decision maker because of their innate ability to determine the narrative rationality of the stories they hear (10). There are two aspects of narrative rationality: narrative coherence and narrative fidelity (10). Coherence is used to analyze whether the pieces of the story fit together and whether the story is structurally stable and consistent. In other words, does the story make sense? On the other hand, narrative fidelity looks at whether the story matches, or rings true, with the ideas, values and experiences of the listener (10). In other words, does the listener accept the story as true? Fisher established five criteria that a person can examine when deciding on the truthfulness of a story: whether the statements that are claimed as factual indeed factual, the relationship between the story and the values it is trying to promote, the outcomes of following the promoted values, personal connection between the story’s values and the audience’s values, and the significance of the issues addressed (10). These criteria can be analyzed when an audience is examining the truthfulness of the message and ultimately decide whether the audience accepts or rejects the values espoused in the story.

The violent actions of the characters in the ads as well as the extreme situations they depict fail to provide narrative rationality and thus result in rejection or dismissal of their message. The stories portrayed in many of the ads may not be considered credible by teen viewers because the connection between using meth for the first time to the violent crimes and mutilated bodies portrayed is not a logical progression. For example, the ad that takes place in the Laundromat fails to show the sequence of events depicting the transformation of the character from a first time user to a full-blown addict. Rather it abruptly brings the two extremes together without explaining how one became the other. Thus, the ad lacks structural coherence and subsequently loses credibility (10). The ad also lacks characterological coherence (10). The boy in the Laundromat at the beginning of the ad does not behave in a way that would indicate that he is capable of the crimes the meth version of himself. The two versions of the teenager are so wildly inconsistent with one another that it almost makes the character unbelievable.

Viewers may also choose to dismiss The Meth Project’s messages because they also lack narrative fidelity. While it is certainly arguable that meth is a significant issue, the other criteria used to measure the fidelity of the message are not met. The reasoning used to discourage youth from trying meth show unlikely consequences of trying meth for the first time. Consequently, youth may not believe the claims made in the ads are factual. Secondly, many viewers may reject the messages because they cannot identify with the events or characters depicted in the ads. Since the behavior in the ads is so extreme, most viewers will not believe they are at risk and reject the message as a result.

Intervention 2: Incorporate Narrative Rationality into Ads

In order to communicate their messages successfully, the Montana Meth Project should focus on the narrative rationality of their ads and work to make sure that their campaigns follow the criteria of narrative coherence and narrative fidelity. This will increase their story’s credibility in the minds of their audience, making it more likely that they will trust and adopt the ad’s message.

One way for the ad to incorporate narrative coherence, would be to provide a sequence of events that clearly show the main character progressing deeper and deeper into addiction. By providing a cause-effect basis for the transformation of the character, the pieces of the character’s story fit together and the story builds structural coherence. Also, by showing the gradual change, the teenager’s behavior is more consistent and makes his character more believable, improving the story’s characterological coherence. In focusing on the narrative coherence of their story, ad developers will increase the credibility of their intended message to the viewer.

The ads should also possess narrative fidelity. In order to develop narrative fidelity, the ads should convey situations that viewers can align easily with the experiences, beliefs and values. While the extreme behavior and characters in the ads do have a high shock value, viewers are less likely to accept the story or message as true because it does not fit into their own experiences or views. Instead of focusing on shocking but unrealistic situations, ad designers should show consequences or actions that the youths can relate to. For example, rather than showing an ad or billboard depicting unrealistic or exaggerated behaviors such as pimping out a significant other for drug money, the billboards can show a more common or realistic consequence of drug use such as being arrested by the police at a party. By altering the ads in this way, the campaign is invoking enough fear that it will influence viewer’s behavior to avoid the negative consequences while at the same time the situation is not so unrealistic that viewers can’t relate to it. Since the story is more likely to align with the experiences and values of the audience, they will be more likely to accept the message of the ad which will in turn affect their rational and decision making.

Critique 3: Campaign Invokes Psychological Reactance Response

The psychological reactance theory states that in response to threats to real or perceived personal freedoms, people go into a motivational state called reactance where the individual responds by behaving in ways aimed at restoring the repressed freedom (11). The greater the perceived threat of the freedom, the more effort the person will put into restoring the freedom (11). Reactance magnitude can also be affected by the characteristics of the threat (12). One characteristic of threats that has been shown to increase reactance is coercion (12). As a form of reactance, the individual may view the lost freedom as more attractive than it was before, perform the freedom that was taken away, or lash out violently at the person taking away the freedom (11).

A study examining the effectiveness of a youth-oriented anti-marijuana ad campaign over the course of six years found that rather than having the intended effect of decreasing youth marijuana use pro-marijuana attitudes had increased (13). Researchers suggested psychological reactance theory as an explanation for this trend (13). They suggested that youths who were exposed to the ads reacted by expressing pro-drug attitudes and the greater the exposure, the stronger the reaction (13).

A study examining the effect of social norms messages on binge drinking college students found that subjects responded to exposure to the ads with reactance by not complying with the message in an attempt to regain control of their environment (13). Research has shown a similar response to the Meth Project ads. A 2008 critique of the campaign showed that the percentage of youths who reported strong approval of meth use quadrupled in six months after exposure to the ads (14). One of the reasons the reactance response is so large may be because the ads use coercive tactics with threats manifesting themselves as fear tactics suggesting they will become like the characters in the ad if they try meth. The graphic nature of the ads and the high frequency of exposure may also have increased the reactance by increasing the perceived threat of the freedom.

Intervention 3: Reduction of Reactance through Manipulation of Positive and Negative Forces

A 1971 study suggested that when a threat to freedom is made, it creates positive and negative forces (15). The positive forces push the individual towards compliance while the negative forces push the individual’s behavior towards reactance (15). The behavior of the individual is a function of the combination of the opposing forces (15). By manipulating these forces, reactance to the campaign can be reduced.

The implementation of the two interventions discussed earlier would reduce psychological reactance by increasing the positive forces. By providing an action recommendation showing ways to reduce the risk of taking meth, it is easier for viewers to address the problem by complying with the message of the campaign. Providing viewers with action recommendations along with fear appeals will push them towards compliancy because, as mentioned before, people with emotional tension actively seek an effective means of reducing the emotional tension.

The implementation of narrative rationality on the campaign will also affect the positive forces, pushing the individual towards compliance, and also reduce the negative forces pushing the individual towards reactance. Research shows evidence that a communicator can increase the positive forces towards compliance by increasing their credibility (17). By focusing on creating more believable, consistent, and realistic characters and situations for their ads, they are increasing the credibility of their message. In addition to the increase in positive forces, by toning down the graphic nature of the ads and the intensity of the messages, the perceived threat of the campaign on personal freedom may decrease and subsequently lower the negative forces, pushing the person even further to compliance.


Statistics have shown a decrease in teen meth use since the implementation of The Meth Project. However, when the pre-existing decline in teen meth use is taken into account, the effects of the campaign are almost statistically insignificant. While graphic ads are effective in invoking fear and increasing awareness of the negative consequences of meth use, studies have shown that they are not as effective as the organization boasts them to be. The effectiveness of the campaign could potentially increase with an introduction of action recommendations that provide a means of reducing the risks portrayed in the ads. The focus on narrative rationality in increasing the credibility and the ability of the ads to connect with viewers would also be beneficial for the campaign. These changes would also increase the positive forces pushing individuals towards compliance and decrease the negative forces pushing them towards reactance. The campaign would still operate primarily through the same media channels but with a slightly different and hopefully more effective approach to reducing first time meth use among at risk youth.


1. McGee S. The 25 Best Givers. The Wall Street Journal Digital Network.

2. The Meth Project. About Us. The Meth Project.

3. Anderson M. Does Information Matter? The Effect of the Meth Project on Meth Use among Youths. Seattle, WA: Department of Economics, University of Washington, 2010

4. The Montana Meth Project. View Ads. The Montana Meth Project.

5. Harding A. Benefits of graphic anti-meth ads questioned. New York, NY: Reuters

6. Janis I. L., & Feshbach, S. Effects of fear-arousing communications. The

Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 1953; 48: 78-92.

7. Witte K. Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs 1992; 59:329-349.

8. Hovland C.I., Janis I.L., & Kelley, H.H. Communication and persuasion:

Psychological studies of opinion change. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953.

9. The Economist. Shock tactics Graphic ads have reversed a trend. Helena, MT: The Economist.

10. Fisher W. R. Narration as a human communication paradigm: The case of public moral argument. Communication Monographs 1984; 51: 1-22.

Brehm J

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