Although previous studies have shown that anti-drug campaigns, like Nancy Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” digital bowel movement on the children of the 1980s, are mostly ineffective when it comes to preventing Americans from experimenting with the wonderful world of illegal drugs, researchers now claim that everything we know about the overall effectiveness of these advertisements is wrong.
A team of scientists at the University of Ohio recently embarked on a mission to determine whether anti-drug PSAs could actually work to persuade the generations of tomorrow to stay away from dope.
To do this, they assembled a group of 28 students and had them watch dozens of 30-second advertisements designed to make them want to avoid good substances like the plague.
But rather than simply ask these folks for a review of the ads, the scientists connected them to a brain scan (fMRI scanner) and monitored their responses in real time.
The results determined that those with a low-risk for drug abuse were able to properly articulate which PSAs were effective, while those with a high-risk for drug abuse could not.
Richard Huskey, one of three co-authors involved with the study, says there is a defensive mechanism at work when it comes to people in the high-risk classification and their views on what they believe is anti-drug propaganda.
“It is very difficult to ask potential drug users which anti-drug PSAs work best. They are generally very defensive and are apt to say that none of the messages is convincing,” he said. “Even though they often say that none of the anti-drug messages are effective, their brains tell a different story.”
Once researchers were in possession of documented opinions and connectivity patterns on the initial 28 respondents, they then put together two more, much larger groups to see if they could predict individual responses to the PSAs without connecting them to the MRI.
Both groups consisted of around 600 people—one was representative of college-aged students, while the other was a sample of adolescents.
What they found was that the self-reporting method was a bust when trying to measure the effectiveness of the PSAs. People with a high-risk for drug abuse are apparently not very straight-forward when it comes to revealing which advertisements had the most impact. It was only after the self-reported reviews were combined with the brain scans that researchers began to get a grip on which PSAs worked the best.
But no MRI results were necessary when trying to determine which PSAs had the greatest affect on low-risk drug abusers.
“That’s because low-risk subjects are accurately telling us which messages are most effective with them,” Huskey said. “We don’t need fancy technology to figure out which messages work best for people who are at low risk—we can just ask them.”
As for those people who simply do not buy into the concept of PSAs having the power to keep kids off drugs, only the brain scans were able to determine their true feelings.
The goal here is to eventually use this data and future studies like it to scientifically design advertisements that will discourage drug use in the high-risk category, even when these people are under the impression that the message has fallen on deaf ears.
Perhaps hitting the topic from an honest angle with respect to various controlled substances—rather than airing ads scripted to invoke fear—would be a good start.
Kids should be given the truth about the risks associated with all drugs (even the legal ones) to give them the ammunition needed to make intelligent decisions later in life. What we don’t need is more of the lies that the federal government has spent billions of dollars selling the American youth (and their parents) over the past few decades.
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