Anti-drug cam­paigns work by pro­vok­ing peo­ple close to users

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health - MAR­GARET HAMIL­TON

DO shock­ing and con­fronting cam­paigns that ac­cu­rately rep­re­sent the dan­gers of il­licit drugs re­ally work? Af­ter many years work­ing on cam­paigns de­signed to raise aware­ness about the ef­fects il­licit drugs can have, in­clud­ing the ‘‘ ice’’ television com­mer­cial cur­rently air­ing, I am struck by how dif­fi­cult it is to ex­plain them. My col­leagues and friends are of­ten crit­i­cal in their re­sponses, which in­clude: This is over the top. Why bother? Mass com­mu­ni­ca­tion is in­ef­fec­tive. What about more dam­ag­ing and preva­lent sub­stances such as al­co­hol and all the trou­ble that causes? This won’t stop users us­ing drugs.

Col­leagues are right to chal­lenge the use of ex­pen­sive means to com­mu­ni­cate mes­sages, in­flu­ence at­ti­tudes, be­liefs, ex­pec­ta­tions and some­times be­hav­iours. They are right to be scep­ti­cal. They are right to won­der whether th­ese cam­paigns make a dif­fer­ence.

But they are usu­ally wrong in their com­men­tary. I have some­times looked at pre­pared ad­ver­tise­ments for drug cam­paigns. I can ini­tially re­act in a sim­i­lar way to my col­leagues and think that they are some­times ir­rel­e­vant, in­ac­cu­rate — of­ten ex­ag­ger­ated — por­tray­als of the real world.

I have to re­mem­ber that I am not the pri­mary tar­get au­di­ence.

In my role with the Aus­tralian Na­tional Coun­cil on Drugs, I have had the op­por­tu­nity to work care­fully and sys­tem­at­i­cally with many oth­ers in help­ing to guide the de­vel­op­ment of the cur­rent il­licit drug cam­paign.

I have come to learn that what I see is not what the pri­mary tar­get au­di­ences see; the mes­sages that I get are not the same as they get; and I have af­firmed by the­o­ret­i­cal un­der­stand­ing that we need to go to care­ful test­ing with tar­get au­di­ences to ap­pre­ci­ate just what an im­age or ad­ver­tise­ment con­tains, what im­pact it has and what pos­si­ble ef­fects.

There is no doubt that il­licit drugs are in our com­mu­nity and rel­a­tively read­ily avail­able. The na­ture and ex­tent of this avail­abil­ity varies. For­tu­nately, most young peo­ple are not in­ter­ested in us­ing them — some­times be­cause they are scared of what they will do to them, and some­times be­cause they have seen friends neg­a­tively af­fected by them.

Those who do use them, or have used them, are also some­times fear­ful of them. Some­times they are not, and con­tinue to use them.

A strat­egy like this one is tar­get­ing the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion — in this in­stance pri­mar­ily young peo­ple who have not used th­ese drugs and are dis­in­clined to use them. The pur­pose is to reaf­firm their in­cli­na­tion not to use them; to re­in­force the po­ten­tial harm and prob­lems as­so­ci­ated with th­ese il­licit drugs.

But the cam­paign is not only de­signed to reach the po­ten­tial user. The in­tent is also to pro­vide a stim­u­lus for par­ents and re­spon­si­ble adults to talk with their chil­dren and young peo­ple about drugs more openly and to seek in­for­ma­tion to fa­cil­i­tate th­ese con­ver­sa­tions. We can un­der­es­ti­mate the power a par­ent can have when talk­ing clearly and con­cisely with their chil­dren about il­licit drugs.

We know from the pre­vi­ous phases of this cam­paign many more par­ents felt em­pow­ered to talk with their young peo­ple about drugs; young peo­ple did think the ads cred­i­ble and re­mem­bered them. Th­ese are good out­comes.

For those who would ben­e­fit from help to change their drug use, the cam­paign pro­vides help for them to find a route to sup­port if they seek it. This group is not, how­ever, the pri­mary au­di­ence for th­ese television ad­ver­tise­ments. It is not ex­pected that all young peo­ple cur­rently us­ing ice or other am­phet­a­mines, cannabis/ mar­i­juana, heroin or other il­licit drugs will stop in re­sponse to th­ese ads. Per­haps some will be helped to do so, through in­di­rect mea­sures and con­ver­sa­tions they will have that might be prompted by this cam­paign.

This cam­paign has in­cluded the in­volve­ment of a num­ber of sci­en­tists, pub­lic ser­vants, med­i­cal staff from ac­ci­dent and emer­gency de­part­ments and other health pro­fes­sion­als in­clud­ing nurses, drug treat­ment work­ers, par­ents, school teach­ers, a den­tist as well as young peo­ple and pro­fes­so­rial as­so­ciates ex­pert in the de­vel­op­ment and eval­u­a­tion of health re­lated cam­paigns. All have been ac­tive in de­vel­op­ing the cur­rent il­licit drug cam­paign images and por­tray­als. This has also in­cluded test­ing ideas from en­thu­si­as­tic ama­teurs in­clud­ing politi­cians and, where found want­ing in eval­u­a­tion and test­ing, th­ese ideas have ap­pro­pri­ately been aban­doned.

Re­search shows those cam­paigns about il­licit drugs, and to­bacco and al­co­hol, have an im­por­tant place in the spec­trum of pre­ven­ta­tive mea­sures avail­able to help pro­tect young peo­ple from un­wise choices.

We sim­ply need to re­mem­ber not to make the mis­take to see the ad­ver­tise­ments or mes­sages through only our own eyes. Pro­fes­sor Mar­garet Hamil­ton is chair­woman of the Cam­paign Ref­er­ence Group of the Aus­tralian Na­tional Coun­cil on Drugs

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