Media and marketing publication AdAge took a look at dwindling anti-drug public service announcements, which have been steadily declining since hitting their peak in the late 1980s at a rate of $1 million in media time a day. The slump is partly due to competition from other do-gooder causes such as fighting cancer and curbing texting while driving, which vie for free public-service airtime. But the real reason behind the anti-drug ad decline is that Congress moved to completely eliminate the media budget for the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The office funded anti-drug ads aimed at teens, including the notorious 2002 Super Bowl ad that linked drugs to terrorism; as recently as 2007, its media budget was a hefty $100 million. However, the program was relentlessly criticized as being ineffective, and underwent a series of budget cuts before it was axed entirely from the 2012 federal budget.
Nevertheless, anti-drug TV spots live on. The Partnership at Drugfree.org (formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America) is working hard to keep anti-drug ads alive. The 28-year old group, which oversaw the creative process for the government-funded ad program, has run many anti-drug campaigns aimed at teens and parents. Remember the frying egg in the “This is your brain on drugs” spot? Or the “I learned it by watching you” father-son classic? The group’s efforts now rely entirely on donated time from ad agencies and media companies. And celebrities like Eric Stoltz, who recently donated his time to direct an anti-drug spot aimed at teens who take their parents’ prescription meds. Stolz said he was motivated to direct the ad by the death of “Glee” star Corey Monteith, who died of a heroin overdose last year.
Why even attempt to save the criticized program? In 2004, Texas State University at San Marcos researchers found that the government's ads were ineffective, and could actually be encouraging drug use. Still, Steve Pasierb, the Partnership's longtime CEO, thinks the program is worthwhile. "We stepped in to keep the campaign alive," he tells AdAge. "We are privatizing it. It's either done through corporate partnership or pro-bono media."
Now that the government has dropped out of the ad business, the future success of anti-drug TV spots will depend on the generosity of the media companies and ad agencies who think the campaigns are worthwhile. Whether or not teenagers will watch the ads remains to be seen.