A Dubious Pitch

By Matthew Grimm, American Demographics, May 1, 2002

In its latest ad campaign, the Office of National Drug Control Policy seeks to convince America’s teens that they assist the war on terrorism by abstaining from drug use. But it’s an argument that could prove self-defeating.
You may have seen an old print ad for Scott Towels, now reproduced for its kitsch value, that depicts a sinister man with a pencil mustache washing his hands. The headline over him asks: “Is your wash room breeding Bolsheviks?”

Delivered with straight-faced urgency at a time when American opinion makers saw Reds in every corner and crevice, we now find the reasoning – that keeping the hands tidy will help staunch employee discontent possibly leading to Communist infiltration – laughable, anachronistic paranoia. Distant as it is, it invokes a similar kind of logic that informs the most recent communications campaign from the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which seeks to convince America’s youth that it assists the war on terrorism by abstaining from drug use. But it’s a pitch whose blanket logic, upon closer examination, proves self-defeating.

The campaign, the latest in a $2 billion media program begun in 1998, raised some eyebrows, and hackles, when it broke during February’s Super Bowl broadcast with a stark message to America’s youth: If you do drugs, you support terrorism. The two spots for the “Drugs and Terror Initiative” pulled no punches as they drew hard lines from consumption of illicit substances to illicit, shadowy groups the world over that have, since Sept. 11, been lumped under a general demonic aegis. The ads featured young people juxtaposing staple rationalizations of drug use with cause/effect realities.

“I helped murder families in Colombia,” says one. “It was just innocent fun,” says another. “I helped kidnap people’s dads,” says one. “Hey, some harmless fun,” says another. Then the ONDCP ups the ante, thumb squarely on a still-exposed nerve. “I helped a bomber get a fake passport,” says one. “I helped blow up buildings.” Then the coup de grace: “My life, my body. It’s not like I was hurting anybody else.”

Both Republican and Democratic conservatives have long argued that drug use involves a choice, and the choice to use drugs represents a criminal character flaw. The implication is obvious in the current campaign, and not surprising, given that it comes at a period in history when the state has been given broad license to marshal consensus, specifically for the “War on Terrorism.”

Now, as it engages a terrorist conspiracy on all fronts, the “zero-tolerance” of President George W. Bush’s foreign policy has manifest foursquare in the ONDCP’s campaign; no gray area need be considered. But this has always been the most contentious issue of anti-drug communications. By using mass marketing tools, the ONDCP and its allies, such as the ad industry’s Partnership for a Drug-Free America, have undertaken a necessary effort to deter youth drug use by dubious means – applying blanket statements and simplistic solutions to deeply personal issues that vary by individual.

Indeed, the biggest problem many behavioral researchers have with the government campaign is that it foists linear thought (A or B, Yes or No) upon kids in the throes of realizing that they live in a three-dimensional world. Scare tactics and castigation may seem the way to address developing minds regarding social taboos, but according to studies by the Berkeley-Calif.-based Center for Educational Research and Development (CERD), such approaches do more long-term harm than short-term good. “When young people recognize that they are being taught to follow directions, rather than to make decisions, they feel betrayed and resentful,” CERD chief Joel Brown summed up in a report in The American School Board Journal in December 1997.

Specifically, zero tolerance may well fly in the face of young people’s experiences. The oft-used example is that, while the government warns them away from marijuana with equal vehemence as cocaine or heroin, use of the former will likely yield the assessment that it is benign by comparison. The impression is that not only did anti-drug instructors and ads lie or exaggerate, but that similar voices of authority must be similarly taken with a grain or more of salt, an outlook of “cognitive dissonance.” And though the ONDCP campaign broaches real-world ramifications beyond just use, the stark correlation with the bloody war in Colombia, much less the destruction of the World Trade Center, presents another reach to the extreme polar opposite of “good behavior.”

“This is exploiting [Sept. 11], using people with health problems, drug addicts, as a scapegoat for terrorism,” says Darrell Rogers, national outreach coordinator at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the national student group formed in 1998 in opposition to the Higher Education Act, which denies federal aid to potential college students convicted of misdemeanor drug offenses.

Judgmental policies on the government’s part are the crux of its missteps, CERD’s Brown told American Demographics. CERD has audited vast tracts of anti-drug program research, much of which has shown a pattern of what he calls “disintegrative shaming.” “The goal,” Brown says, “is to present a graphic description of a negative effect of drugs, and make a young person feel internally contradicted, confused. Nowhere is this more true than where, under zero-tolerance policy, they see kids who might need help being kicked out of school for first-time offenses.”

The CERD gives higher marks to programs it labels “Just Say Know,” which more realistically assess the pharmacological landscape teens find themselves in, advise kids on the relative safety of illicit drugs and counsel users on how to staunch their habits. This, the government has long argued – in linear fashion – essentially condones drug use. But dissent from official policy is not, as the pat reactionary response usually has it, the advocacy of cocaine or ecstasy use, but rather valid scrutiny of how taxpayer money is most efficiently spent. And in that regard, Brown says, critique is necessary. “The clear issue is a relationship between money spent on these massive campaigns and whether young people’s drug use goes up and down,” he says. “If you want to make a correlation between the cost and changes in behavior as a result, then you’re not making much of a case.”

The University of Michigan’s influential “Focus on the Future” annual study found that while 8th graders who had used “any illicit drug” had declined to 19.5 percent in 2001 from 23.6 percent in 1996. Older teens weren’t so chaste; “any illicit drug” use rose to 37.2 percent in 2001 from 21.4 percent in 1991 among 10th graders, and to 41.4 percent from 29.4 percent among 12th graders. Use of illicit drugs has remained generally flat, from highs of 38.5 percent and 42.4 percent in 1997, the year before the ONDCP campaign began, to 37.2 percent and 41.4 percent last year.

Use of marijuana or hashish in 2001 grew 0.5 percent among both 10th and 12th graders. And while cocaine use declined slightly, just above 6 percent of 10th graders and 9.2 percent of 12th graders used ecstasy in 2001, up sharply from 3.9 percent and 4 percent in 1997, respectively.

The ONCDP says it is not trying to judge, but to spur dialogue. “This is not necessarily to blame every act of terror on the purchase of every single joint across the country,” says Jennifer de Vallance, ONDCP press secretary. “These kids know drugs are bad for them, but [our campaign] presents to them a consequence they might not have thought about before, namely the notion that, in this kind of business, you don’t know where your money is going.”

Prior to airing, the ONDCP ran its campaign past focus groups and found that vast majorities of ‘tweens and teens said it significantly reduced their intent to use drugs, while parents said it gave them new ways to discuss the subject with their kids, de Vallance said. Still, while the research showed 81 percent of teens and young adults considered the “I Helped” ad believable, that was 10 percent less than adults. And only teens, not young adults, indicated their interest in using drugs was significantly reduced after seeing the ad, according to an abstract of the research provided by the ONDCP.

On its Web site, the ONDCP backs its ads’ claims, listing groups that the State Department has classified as terrorist and engaged in narco-trafficking. One of them is the AUC, a Colombian confederation of right-wing paramilitaries long tolerated by and allegedly allied with the U.S.-trained and -equipped Colombian military. The AUC is reportedly responsible for 70 percent to 80 percent of the murders in that country, according to various human rights groups’ audits, including most of the 3,800 labor unionistas killed since 1986. Last July, the United Steelworkers and its Colombian affiliate union named Coca-Cola in a lawsuit in a U.S. District Court in Florida, alleging that the soda giant, its Colombian bottler and the owner of a plant in the city of Carepa employed the AUC to murder labor leader Edgar Paz and to terrorize the union out of the city.

By the ONDCP’s line, then, every Coca-Cola you purchase just might be putting money into terrorists’ pockets. While resisting any glib cracks about “coke” interdiction, it would appear not wholly implausible to suggest that the reactionary zeal of the bygone Scott Towels ad is not such a thing of the past, nor so funny, after all.

Copyright 2002, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc.