$1bn White House Anti-Drug Campaign is Ineffectual

29 August 2006

WASHINGTON, DC: A report from the US Government Accountability Office has slammed the White House's $1 billion (€783,27m; £529.5m) anti-drug advertising campaign for failing to make any appreciable impact on teenage drug abuse.

It recommends that Congress limit further funding for the campaign until its executive body - the Office of National Drug Control Policy - "provides credible evidence of a media campaign approach that effectively prevents and curtails youth drug use."

The ONCDP account (current annual budget $99m via Foote Cone & Belding) is seen by many on Madison Avenue as a poisoned chalice due to its inherent and pervasive politicking. When up for an all-comers pitch in September 2004, only two contenders (FCB and JWT) displayed any serious interest in the business.

The GAO report, produced by Maryland researcher Westat, concludes that the campaign raises awareness among parents but has done little to alter teen drug use. However, the survey - which has so far cost US taxpayers $42m - also has its critics, who argue that its methodology is flawed.

They complain that Westat's evaluation of the survey remained on the starting block until eighteen months after the launch of the latest ONDC campaign.

They also cite a report by Westat that a campaign targeting girls in the 11-15 age group had actually contributed to an increase in marijuana use among the target group, predicatably sparking a media furore.

When, as a result, the campaign changed its target audience to the 9-11 age group Westat continued to measure the previous demographic group.

Bouncing back off the ropes, ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley pointed to other studies showing teen drug usage to be down by 19%. "Everybody who follows this issue acknowledges the campaign's role in those great results," he said.

"Evaluation is important to us. The most telling statistic is that adult drug use has not appreciably changed while teen drug use [the target of the campaign] has gone down dramatically. I think that's the definition of successful advertising."

Meantime, against a Washington background of politicized accusations and counter-accusations, milions of American kids still remain avid customers for the pushers' products.

Data sourced from AdWeek (USA); additional content by WARC staff