Saturday, May 8, 2010

Is “Above the Influence” Beside the Point? A Closer Look at the Anti-Drug Youth Media Campaign – Liz Faye

There is no question that drug and alcohol use presents a serious challenge for our youth. Almost 30% of high school students report episodic heavy or binge drinking and 20% report marijuana use. And although rates of illicit drug use have decreased, rates of nonmedical use of prescription and over-the-counter (OTC) medication remain high (4). More important are the implications of these behaviors, medically, socially and psychologically speaking. Some of the health implications include hospitalizations and/or death from drug overdose, continued substance abuse/dependence problems as an adult, and one of the biggest problems of drug-related violence and injuries. In summary, when teens and drugs are put together, decisions and behaviors carried out often result in poor health outcomes. And there certainly has been quite the public health response to address these problems, many of which have found it very difficult to effectively connect to their target audience. We have certainly come a long way from the D.A.R.E program although it still exists today, but there are many other interventions and programs that have attempted to adapt their strategy based on the shortcomings of these initial interventions. As psychology and social sciences press on and advance their understanding of what factors are involved in the decisions teenagers make regarding alcohol and drug use, we are seeing many different approaches to the problem. Whereas some programs base their interventions on traditional social theories, others are utilizing more contemporary approaches, such as branding and marketing their message much like the products we buy.

“Above the Influence” is part of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign developed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. This media campaign is modeled on best practices in the marketing and advertising research industries. Therefore the media they produce and market goes through various levels of research and testing with the intention that such efforts will make the message more effective to the target audience. Many teens and adults alike have been exposed to the ads and commercials produced by the “Above the Influence” campaign since it is part of the largest anti-drug campaign in the nation. The “Above the Influence” campaign has used marketing and advertising to “brand” itself and the message it represents that anti-drug beliefs are favorable to teens and should become the norm. Essentially, the goal of this campaign is to disseminate the message to teens that by choosing not to do drugs, they are putting themselves “above the influence” of peer pressure to make bad choices, with the “bad choices” being drug use. However, studies have shown that the effects of anti-drug campaigns are not only difficult to measure, but in many cases are of little to no avail (8). In lieu of such evidence, one must ask “Is this intervention working?” As part of the largest campaign in the nation, should we continue funding efforts that have proven to be ineffective? While it appears as though the “Above the Influence” campaign has been quite successful in spreading its message to a large audience, I would argue that the message and the brand are somewhat inconsistent and irrelevant to the experience of the target audience. In order to be more effective, efforts must include identifying the flaws in the message using social science theories and reframing both the brand and the message in a way that is more relevant to the experience of teens.

Tell Me I Can’t Do Something and I’ll Try

According to the psychological reactance theory, youth will react against threats to their freedom of choice by experiencing and succumbing to pressure to reestablish that freedom (12). Many of the commercials and advertisements from the “Above the Influence” campaign seem to walk the line between telling teens not to do drugs and telling them it’s their choice. By presenting teens that use drugs as bad decision-makers, the intended or unintended message can become, “Don’t do drugs or else you will be like this kid who makes really bad decisions.” And in some cases, the ads outright tell them they don’t need the drugs. Teens often times feel as though a lot of things are out of their control as they are often told what they need to do on a daily basis. “Turn your phone off. Go to school. Be quiet during class. Do your homework. Be home by 11. Don’t use drugs.” The very nature of adolescence involves a certain lack of control since very few teens are fully independent, as in living on their own and making all of their own decisions. Studies have shown that if you make something forbidden or portray it as bad, it becomes more appealing to teenagers who are often in the most rebellious phase of their life (19). If smoking weed is part of a teen’s daily decisions and these campaigns are telling them they should not be smoking, such a message might further compel them to smoke.

The other unintended consequence of anti-drug campaigns such as “Above the Influence” is that they make drug use among teens seem commonplace. This might give teens the perception that drugs are much more common among their peers than they originally thought. Telling teens to be “above the influence” suggests that the norm among their peers is to use drugs and alcohol, and we’re instead asking them to reject this “common” pressure they are likely to encounter. In a sense, the campaign can be self-sabotaging by sending out this message to a large audience of teens who then come to accept that pressure to use drugs is the norm and that it is to be expected among their population. Therefore saying “no” to this implied norm becomes all the more challenging even though the reality is the majority of teens don’t use drugs or alcohol.

The Assumption of Rational Decision Making

A concern with the “Above the Influence” message is what seems to be an assumption that teens will be able to make rational decisions to not use drugs when faced with the pressure. However studies have shown that when choosing between behaviors, perhaps one less favorable but more desirable than the other (i.e. using drugs with friends versus saying “no”), both teens and adults alike are not likely to make rational decisions on a consistent basis (6). This can be illustrated in everyday decisions. Religion isn’t based on rationality or reason yet so many people adhere to one faith or another. We buy so many products that are not advertised in a way to appeal to our rational side. Nike doesn’t sell sneakers by advertising the practicality of their sneakers and their dual density midsole; instead, they highlight and glorify remarkable feats of strength and athleticism almost leaving the viewer to believe they could achieve the same results or at least be just as cool as the people who do (14 Nike Commercial). Bacardi Mojito certainly isn’t advertising what the rum tastes like specifically and the percentage of alcohol; they show sexy young people partying, dancing and appearing to have the time of their life because they understand that the way to sell their product to us is to sell it to our emotions (3 Bacardi Mojito Commercial). By connecting to the emotions and feelings we desire such as being cool, happy, sexy, popular, etc, they understand that we will link their product to the emotions they evoke.

In one particular “Above the Influence” commercial, they present a teenage boy at a party who is offered marijuana by some other teenager meant to represent the “bad influence”. All of a sudden the teenage boy pauses as his “good” and “bad” shoulder duke it out with the “good” shoulder mentioning how upset his parents and little brother would be and how he could get in big trouble while the “bad” shoulder minimizes the situation and encourages him to go for it. Then it ends by telling him to ignore both “shoulders” and make the decision himself at which point he refuses the joint. The way the situation is presented in this particular commercial suggests that the teenager is able to make a rational decision in the moment when he may feel pressure to do something he shouldn’t do. Such logic seems like a gross simplification of the reality and what teens are experiencing when faced with the decision to use drugs or not. In the same way that products are marketed to us in a way that is emotionally and socially relevant, so aren’t drugs such as marijuana (5). It’s not just about the drug itself, but what it represents to teenagers and until we acknowledge and address the reasons why teenagers want to use marijuana, i.e. what it represents to them, we will not be able to effectively link our message of not using drugs to the emotions and feelings that will condone it. In other words, until you have the right pieces you can’t fix a broken machine. By knowing what emotions and ideals teenagers link to their desire to use drugs, we can try to redirect and relate these emotions to the desired behavior of not using drugs.

What Exactly is the Message and is it Relevant?

It appears as though the “Above the Influence” campaign has a really important message although messages often can get lost in translation by the time they reach the target audience. The campaign seems to focus on two factors: providing information on the different types of drugs and their effects and providing the audience with information on the different types of pressures or influences that can lead teenagers into using drugs. It seems as though the strategy is to inform teenagers of the health implications and dangers associated with drug use and ways to overcome the pressure they may feel to use drugs including things teenagers can say when friends or peers ask them to engage in drug using behavior. Based on the various commercials and advertisements, the message of “Above the Influence” seems unclear and rather vague. “Be above the influence” seems to be the take home message, but as to what those influences are and what you should do to be above the influence is not coming across so clear in the commercials, which seem to be the major source of advertising. More importantly, there is a lack of development linking the message to the brand name “Above the Influence.” Teens are shown what they should not do (drugs) but what are the emotions one is left to have when thinking about this brand?

One commercial shows a young teenage boy playing basketball by himself and his shadow is mimicking him (2). The next scene moves to the side of the court where it shows another teenage boy who appears to be smoking (the assumption is that he is smoking marijuana). The boy playing basketball then leaves the court and his shadow behind to join the kid and a voice-over says, “When you smoke weed, how much of yourself are you leaving behind?” Like this commercial, many of the advertisements seem to end in a very vague manner without any clear take-home message. And if any emotion has been linked to the commercial, it’s sobering, monotone, and anything but provocative. It seems as though the goal is to get the teenage audience who is watching this ad to think about how much marijuana affects their ability to be successful and do the things they enjoy, but this makes a rather big assumption: that the target audience actually cares about this point and is willing to draw the necessary link between smoking marijuana and losing their identity. Studies have shown evidence that anti-drug campaigns may be effective at informing a large target audience and making them accept the fact that drug use is a problem, but there is much less evidence to prove that these campaigns are effective at changing behaviors (8). This commercial is a great example of this trend. “Above the Influence” ads have stepped in the right direction of attempting to brand their anti-drug message, but it is important to commit to the true techniques of branding and marketing in order to be successful and create a clear and desirable message with their brand.

More than the issue of ambiguity, the message “Above the Influence” presents does not seem as relevant to the actual experiences of their target audience. It doesn’t take long before you find the parodies created by teens in response to the anti-drug ads they see. While the focus groups of teenagers and surveys evaluating the effectiveness of these campaigns may suggest that they are in fact having an impact, one has to question the validity of these measures. The “Above the Influence” campaign suggests that according to their research and evaluation studies, their ads are proving to be both representative of their target audience’s experience as well reaching their target audience in a useful way. Although many studies have shown a certain level of reliability in self-reporting, one must consider the potential for bias to occur. Similarly to how risk perception bias can affect an epidemiological study, one must consider that teens that have been exposed to these campaigns are aware of the risks associated with drug use and therefore they are more likely to report the intervention as having a positive impact on their behavior even though it may not necessarily be the case (11). Simply put, the so-called “best practices” methods of research and evaluation that “Above the Influence” is performing to ensure that its brand message is reaching the target audience may not be the most effective method.

There are a couple reasons to suspect that the message is neither relevant nor effective. Many of the studies suggest that the impact of these anti-drug media campaigns has been little to none. And other studies have indicated that even when there is an effect, it is mostly on knowledge and attitudes, but not on behavior. At most, more teens’ attitudes about drugs may change and they may view drugs as being more likely to cause health problems and impact their lives negatively. But this does not translate into changing their behavior, which is ultimately the most important factor. Furthermore, there are studies that suggest these campaigns are having adverse effects and further validating teens’ attitudes towards using drugs (7). More compelling than the studies, however, is the evidence presented by teens, the actual target audience. Sometimes, if you really want to know what teens think, you need to go to them as opposed to making them come to you. Simply put “Above the Influence” in the search bar of YouTube and you will get a multitude of parodies and spoofs created by teens that mock the “Above the Influence” ads (21 Above the Influence YouTube Search). In an age of technology, teens are no stranger to the Internet. They are some of the biggest users of all that new age technology has to offer social and personal communication including Facebook, Twitter, blogging, Skyping, etc. And if these are the places they go to truly express how they feel, one shouldn’t ignore the messages they are inadvertently sending. If there is evidence of teens making fun of these ads and who are simply not buying into its message, these are the very teens that should become the target audience.

This is certainly not to say that the “Above the Influence” campaign has been completely futile in its efforts. It seems worthwhile to address some of the flaws of the campaign since it possesses potential and room to develop into a more effective intervention. “Above the Influence” has created a brand that teens can associate with healthy and drug-free behaviors. They have created not just a concept, but actual products. Teens can go to their website and get involved, create their own videos and express their opinions, listen to podcasts, not to mention connect with other teens going through similar issues. The idea of branding a drug-free message is progressive concept. If retail industries can profit billion of dollars from marketing their brands, it is certainly worth using similar strategies to brand and market a public health message. However, we need to acknowledge the flaws and then come up with practical solutions to address them.

Making “Above the Influence” a Bull’s Eye:

Proposal for a Campaign Overhaul

It’s time for the “Above the Influence” campaign to switch gears and step up to the next phase. Much like Honda doesn’t try to sell a 2004 Civic in 2010 or a department store doesn’t sell last years winter catalogue as the days get longer and warmer, we need to sell the 2010 version of “Above the Influence” and our target audience needs to be aware that it is in fact the newer version. If we are going to be a brand, we have to commit fully to being a brand and all the work it entails. Since many of the problems with the campaign involve the message, it is important that the message be the main area of improvement as we develop the newest model of “Above the Influence”. Three areas of improvement I would focus on include: utilizing less conventional research methods to determine what the target audience wants, revising the brand name to establish the upgraded version, re-framing the campaign to market a more relevant and “sellable” perspective.

Fight Fire with Fire

Teens comprise one of the largest populations targeted by marketing industries, including those for alcohol and illicit drugs. It’s a simple fact for most products that if you appeal to teenagers and young people, your product will sell more successfully, specifically products that can be represented as part of our deepest emotional wishes and desires – to feel loved, important, attractive, popular, rich, etc. One needs to look no further than the tobacco industry that has used such techniques to aggressively market towards teenagers and young adults over the years (5). And now that their marketing strategies are open for the public to see, it is clear that they invested quite a bit of the money and time into getting into the mind of our collective youth. What makes them tick? What do they want? How can we make our product line up with their desires?

We need to adopt similar strategies. This is not to say they we completely disregard the conventional means of public health research such as literature reviews, formal qualitative and quantitative studies. However, we need to invest much more of our time into unconventional strategies much like the “Truth” campaign. The “Truth” campaign determined that the current anti-tobacco strategies were not effective, so they knew that had to try something else. One of the main tickets to their success was using unconventional means to get inside the heads of youth and create compelling advertising from those insights (7). I propose that in a similar manner to the “Truth” campaign, we conduct more informal qualitative studies using young adult interviewers in places where youth feel comfortable, such as malls, skate parks, food establishments, etc. Interviewers should use the language of the youth even if this means bad language so they can be seen as peers. The bottom line is trust will lead to real answers (7). Through these studies, we should determine what the youth care about, what are their values, what do they like to do, what are their concerns. The focus should not be about drugs, but overall what does a teen think about on daily basis.

Give Me Something Shiny and New

“Above the Influence” campaign may run into the “so-last-year” problem as a brand. With ads that have produced a very similar message over the years, once the target audience is uninterested or bored with a brand, it is very difficult to restore interest unless the brand goes through a makeover of some sort. Brands have to keep reinventing themselves and marketing the newest version to keep up with the competing brands. Cars get sleeker, faster, more efficient, while clothing and apparel follow the latest fashion trends. Teens are exposed to at least 3000 advertisements everyday with many of these advertisements targeting their population specifically (18). So, a brand must really stand out and present its own case to compete with their interests. I propose that “Above the Influence” either change its name or come out with a “line” that has a more provocative identity.

Marketing experts claim that often times what you say is more important than how you say it (15). Blackberry has many different phones and the names convey a certain emotion or are familiar and descriptive– Pearl, Bold, Storm, Curve. Nike says “just do it”, Lance Armstrong says “live strong”, the Army says “be all that you can be,” while M&M’s assures you that it “melts in your mouth, not in your hands.” These are all action-oriented slogans and “Above the Influence” just isn’t cutting it. The “Above the Influence” campaign needs to come up with a slogan. The best ones are short, powerful summations used alongside a brand’s logo (9). “Above the Influence” is a pretty well recognized brand among teens, and as part of the qualitative research in the first step, it would be invaluable to keep record of the language teens use and words they identify with in order to come up with a catchy slogan. Another option is to simply create an action-oriented slogan, such as “Above the Influence: Stand Out” or “Above the Influence: I Dominate”. The point is the slogan does not need to mention anything about anti-drug values. Instead action-oriented and sensational words that give the target audience a feeling of power, control, and motivation can go a long way to link the brand with something positive that the teens are more likely to respond to.

Time to Replace the Big Thick Glasses with Color Contacts

After doing the necessary research and upgrading the brand, it’s time to reframe the context in which the campaign presents the new and improved intervention. Some key objectives that have been identified in developing a framing strategy for public health programs include presenting a unified, coherent core position on the program that is consistent with the core values of the target audience, evoking visual images that appeal to the core values, implying as a solution the program being marketed (17). The core values of teens are greatly influenced by a number of factors, including the family, social and cultural context. Currently, “Above the Influence” ads have framed their message in a way that highlights the loss associated with using drugs, which in turn is supposed to persuade teens to not use drugs. “Don’t do drugs or you will lose yourself.” The way the message is presented makes it seem as though you lose something regardless of which behavior is chosen. If one is to do drugs, they will lose their identity. If one is to keep their identity, then they must lose the drugs. We must first start by re-framing this lose-lose situation into a situation in which core values are reinforced by buying into “Above the Influence.”

One study in particular has identified the following lessons from social marketing to teens: teens change rapidly, and therefore correct segmentation by age is essential; teen opinions are very strong and they want to be listened to, not talked at; rebellion and independence from authority is a strong motivator; embedding messages in other content is better than straightforward, hard sells; social networks may be more important than generalized “coolness”; brands are important—a brand represents something they come to trust (18). Therefore, “Above the Influence” needs to create a coherent, core position that reflects these sentiments – “Above the Influence doesn’t care what your parents say or what the teacher says, we care about what you have to say”. With ads being one of the main interventions provided by this campaign, it would seem favorable to work on creating images that reflect teens’ feelings about rebellion and authority. The ads can take an active role in minimizing the role of authority in the decision to not take drugs. The ads could highlight less conventional role-models and other teens that have chosen to “Dominate” and be “Above the Influence”. A young female mountain biker popping a wheelie, an avid skateboarder mid-ollie, a talented graffiti artist in the middle of a masterpiece, guitar player rocking out in his band – these are images that can be inspiring to teens. Seeing images of other in action, doing what they love to do can inspire them to focus on things they may be good at or skills they too can develop if they see more examples.

Certainly the interventions I mentioned here do not come without a fair set of challenges. In order for the campaign to appeal more to teens and speak in their language, it is likely to face opposition by parents, teachers, and authority figures who may not feel comfortable with the implication that their opinion does not count. Minimizing their role is likely to bring resistance to such an idea. But if it works, that is the ultimate goal. If taking these steps results in the “Above the Influence” campaign becoming more successful at reaching out and grabbing teens so they can find ways to express their individuality and have experiences without using drugs, the resistance is likely to subside. “Above the Influence” campaign has to be smarter, sexier, and more creative at selling its message. To be regarded as the solution to drug use among teens, “Above the Influence” has to think outside the box and create an environment that encourages teens to express themselves, have great experiences, become empowered and fulfill their potential through other means than drugs without actually telling not to use drugs. This campaign has to be just as desired as the new iPhone, or at least that should be the goal. In summary, it’s time to upgrade to a newer model with “cooler” features.


1. Above the Influence Campaign website URL:

2. Above the Influence Ads URL:

3. Bacardi Mojito Commercial

4. CDC statistics on alcohol & drug use among youth URL:

5. Cummings, KM et al. Marketing to America’s Youth: evidence from corporate documents. Tobacco Control. 2002; 11:i5-i17.

6. DeMartino B et al. Frames, biases, and rational decision-making in the human brain. Science 2006; 313:684-687.

7. Hicks JJ. The strategy behind Florida’s “truth” campaign. Tobacco Control. 2001; 10: 3-5

8. Hornik R et al. Effects of the national youth anti-drug media campaign on youths. American Journal of Public Health. 2008; 98:2229-2236

9.Klein K. Slogans that are the real thing. BusinessWeek Online file:///URL/http/

10. Langer, EJ. The illusion of control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1975; 32:311-328

11. Logan DE et al. Social desirability response bias and self-report of psychological distress in pediatric chronic pain patients. Pain. 2008; 136:366-372.

12. Miller CH et al. Psychological Reactance and Promotional Health Messages: The Effects of Controlling Language, Lexical Concreteness, and the Restoration of Freedom. Human Communication Research. 2007; 33:219-240

13. National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign website URL:

14. Nike Commercial

15. How to build great campaigns (Chapter 5). In: Olivgy D. Confessions of an Advertising Man. New York: Atheneum, 1964, pp. 89-103

16. Rains S, Turner MM. Psychological Reactance and Persuasive Health Communication: ATest and Extension of the Intertwined Model. Health Communication Research 2007; 33:241-269

17. Marketing public health – an opportunity for the public health practitioner (Chapter 6). In: Siegel M, Doner L. Marketing Public Health: Strategies to Promote Social Change (2nd edition). Sudbury, MA: Jones & Bartlett Publishers, Inc., 2007, pp. 127-152

18. Smith WA. Social Marketing: an overview of approach and effects. Injury Prevention. 2006 June; 12(Suppl 1): i38–i43.

19. Steinberg L. Risk Taking in Adolescence: New perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science. Current Directions in Psychological Science. 2007; 16:55-59

20. Wikipedia: Framing (social sciences) URL:

21. YouTube Search : Above the Influence Commercial URL:

Labels: , ,


At May 17, 2010 at 10:48 PM , Anonymous Jason Blanchette said...

Yes, they definately need a lot more qualitative, unconventional, market research. They should also definately pay closer attention to academic research on adolescent development. There is one commercial that shows a teenage male walking through a party and enters a room where he is offered a joint. A devil and other people show up on his one shoulder to persuade him to smoke. An angel and other people appear on his other shoulder to dissuade him from smoking it. The commercial ends by saying, "The only voice that matters is yours" and the teen male then snubs off the pot smokers to leave the room. The commercial does not provide any useful tips on refusing drugs. Teenagers are inclusive, and they are more likely going to be offered pot by other teenagers that they admire or respect rather than by teenagers they will feel comfortable snubbing. But the commercial portrays and frames "drug refusal" as "snubbing" rather than respectfully making your own decisions. Teenagers react more to "gut feelings" than we do as adults, which is partly because of the way their brains are developing. I think for teenagers in that commercial situation they would feel the need to be inclusive and accepted with the other teenagers. But after framing drug refusal as "rejecting" the drug users, the commercial tells teenagers to listen to their own voice. I suspect that commercial causes more marijuana use than it prevents. And my guess is that either the correct academic research OR the proper market and formative research would have prevented such a terrible commercial.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home