GAO: Anti-Drug Ads Ineffective

WASHINGTON A Government Accountability Office probe of the White House’s anti-drug media campaign has found that the $1 billion-plus spent on the effort so far has not been effective in reducing teen drug use. The report recommends that Congress limit funding until the Office of National Drug Control Policy “provides credible evidence of a media campaign approach that effectively prevents and curtails youth drug use.”

The report comes at a time when Congress is poised to take up the anti-drug media campaign budget when it returns from its recess. The campaign’s current budget is $99 million, the lowest since the effort began in 1998. ONDCP has asked for $120 million next year. The Senate agrees with that amount, but the House has recommended $100 million.

The GAO report examined the Westat survey, named after the Rockville, Md., research firm that was awarded the contract in 1998 to evaluate the campaign. Since then, the government has spent $42 million on a survey that has been a constant thorn in ONDCP’s side because critics argue that it uses a flawed methodology. The survey has concluded that the campaign raises awareness among parents but has done little to alter teen drug use.

Critics charge that Westat did not start measuring the campaign’s effectiveness until nearly 18 months after the launch, so the baseline is off. Westat once reported that the campaign contributed to an increase in marijuana use among teenage girls, a finding that captured media attention. When the campaign changed its target audience and creative was directed at 11- to 15-year-olds, Westat continued to measure the previous demo of 9- to 11-year-olds and was unable to measure the new target.

In a five-page response to the GAO report, drug czar John Walters questions the validity of the Westat measurement tool because it seeks to directly prove that advertising caused teens to stop using drugs. “Establishing a causal relationship between exposure and outcomes is something major marketers rarely attempt because it is virtually impossible to do,” Walters wrote. “This is one reason why the ‘Truth’ anti-tobacco advertising campaign, acclaimed as a successful initiative in view of the significant declines we’ve seen in teen smoking, did not claim to prove a causal relationship between campaign exposure and smoking outcomes, reporting instead that the campaign was associated with substantial declines in youth smoking.”

Nancy Kingsbury, the GAO’s managing director of applied research methods, said Walters raised a valid point. “It is a really tough social science question to answer and we understand that,” she said. “What puzzles us is that when the [Westat] contract was first put in place, ONDCP got a lot of political capital out of the fact that they had an evaluation. But it’s just that it did not come out the way they wanted. I still give them credit for doing it. It is the right thing to do.”

Kingsbury said Westat has done work in the past for GAO, but that those contracts were in separate divisions that had nothing to do with its current report. Westat handled a $1.6 million contract for GAO from 1997-99 evaluating Medicare and a $534,000 hospital survey done in 2004-05.

ONDCP has been in a no-win situation since the GAO probe began, which followed the convictions of two top agency officials for overbilling the government on the campaign. As one observer put it at the time the probe was launched, “If the GAO finds that Westat is a piece of crap, then ONDCP has wasted $42 million. If the report says Westat has somehow found the holy grail of advertising cause and effect, then the campaign is not working by that measure.”

ONDCP representative Tom Riley points to independent studies showing that teen drug use has declined by 19 percent. “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.”

Stephen Pasierb, president and CEO of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which coordinates creative on the campaign through 40 agencies, said the GAO probe provides no new learning for the campaign. “There is nothing you can do with this study to change the campaign,” he said. “There is no learning here because it seeks to prove something you can’t prove. The campaign was never meant to be this kind of a silver bullet.”

The recent GAO report was prompted by a request from Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to examine all of the contracts that were part of the media campaign, including ads, public relations and evaluation.

Riley said that what matters in the end is balancing the kind of messages teens hear. “Teens are saturated with pro drug messages from rap music, from movies and from other teens around them,” he said. “The campaign is the only national source of anti-drug messages and it is vital to continue funding it.”