Above the Influence: A Critique and an Alternative Solution – Andrea Doersam
The current teenage generation is bombarded with media advertisements. The question is whether or not what is being advertised to the teen is successful or not. Public Health officials undoubtedly have a large task at hand: to create an intervention that is successful in relaying the desired message to teenagers. A major public health intervention that is currently being used is the “Above the Influence” campaign.
The Above the Influence Campaign was created with the intention to target teens with anti-drug advertisements. It is a creation of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign whose role is to focus on substances that are statistically most abused by teens, primarily marijuana (Above the Influence, 2010). The campaign efforts work on both the national level through broad prevention messages as well as at the community level through more specifically targeted messages (Ex: Native American populations). The primary mediums used by the Above the Influence campaign to reach teens, is by television commercials and internet advertisements. Additionally, this public health intervention is allocated a good deal of monetary resources by the government. However, despite the financial support and extensive media outlet, Above the Influence has failed to perform its primary task: to successfully influence teenagers to not smoke marijuana or abuse any type of recreational drug (Rx drugs, alcohol, meth, inhalants, ecstasy, etc.).
This specific campaign is based off the social and behavioral science “Theory of Reasoned Action” which is defined as “a series of hypotheses which link beliefs and attitudes to behavior. It suggests that behavioral change ultimately is the result of changes in beliefs, and that people will perform behavior if they think they should perform it” (Salazar, 1991, 132). This theory historically tends to prove unsuccessful when applied to Public Health initiatives, despite the fact that it is used in a vast percentage of public health interventions (Siegel, 9/30). The Theory of Reasoned Action model works on the individual level, it predicts an individual’s behaviors; group level models tend to show higher success rates in Public Health initiatives (Siegel, 9/30). It assumes that an individual will rationally weigh their perceived outcome expectancies against their perceived subjective norms of changing a behavior.
Additionally, the model is based on the idea that behavior is planned, it does not account for unplanned behavior which is evident in human nature (Ariely, 2008, xx). In order for Above the Influence to have the effect it hoped for, teenagers would need to compare their personal attitudes towards smoking marijuana with how they think people in their environment feel about them smoking marijuana. They then would need to conclude that one option’s benefits outweigh the other, and proceed to dictate their behavior based on it. Expecting a teenager to rationally weigh out their options is unrealistic. This campaign’s core basis is similar to expecting a teen to write out a Pros and Cons list, and then decide whether or not they want to smoke marijuana based on what they came up with. Expecting that not only teens, but people in general will make reasoned decisions and then act on them in this way is ridiculous. Strengths of the Theory of Reasoned Action model include the fact that it takes into consideration one’s environment and surroundings, one can be influenced to change their behavior by other people. In the campaign’s small defense, consideration is given to a teenager’s environment. Commercials are primarily based on depicting an ‘average teenager’s’ surroundings. By making the surroundings in the commercials comparable to a teenager’s actual life, the campaign attempts to be relatable. However, overall, Above the Influence did not reap the benefits of the behavioral science model it is based upon.
One must take into consideration the target audience of the “Above the Influence” campaign, teenagers. The campaign challenges, or more so tells its viewers to not do drugs in unsuccessful attempts. The public health initiative targets ‘pot heads’ as outsiders and in essence, unproductive members of society. Although the campaign made the settings of its commercials somewhat relatable, they made the teenagers acting in those settings un-relatable by depicting them as outsiders. Upon examining the website, the campaign looked to actual teenagers to determine what influences them to figure out how to affect their target audience. The “Influence Project” was conducted to interview groups of teens across the country to determine who and what has positive and negative influences in their environments (Above the Influence, 2010). Answers included celebrities and musicians having negative effects, while friends and family on average having positive effects. With this information, Above the Influence decided on using other teens, something supposedly relatable to the campaign’s viewers in its advertisements. They then depicted teens that smoke marijuana in an extremely negative light; this is where the campaign becomes un-relatable for its viewers. Above the Influence used their gathered information incorrectly. Using teenagers within the advertisements was a correct move by Above the Influence, however, they should have portrayed them differently to maintain relativity. Had the idea of relativity been used correctly, Above the Influence would have used teenagers in a positive manner. Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational exemplifies the idea of relativity: “we tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable- and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily” (Ariely, 2008, 8). By portraying teenagers in the advertisements as outsiders, Above the Influence falls into the ‘cannot be compared easily’ category and therefore its audience avoids it.
The campaign failed in giving appropriate consideration to the Advertising Theory, which takes into account the importance of portraying a relatable message tied together by core values (Siegel, 10/21). Above the Influence does not provide teenagers with any type of ‘promise,’ and it furthermore does not support its message with real people and real stories. David Ogilvy’s article Confessions of an Advertising Man explains that when it comes to advertising one’s idea or initiative, the “most important job is to decide what you are going to say about your product, what benefit you are going to promise.” (Ogilvy, 1964, 93). Above the Influence focuses on the negative aspects of abusing drugs and alcohol, it does not capture its viewers buy-in with its initial slogan “get the facts-before you risk it.” (Above the Influence, 2010). The campaign chose to rely more on scare tactics of all the risks involved with smoking marijuana and using other drugs to appeal to its audience instead of incorporating a promise based on core values. Nobody wants to associate themselves with the ‘risks’ or negative aspects of anything, and teenagers especially are already more prone to feelings of invincibility, so advertising through ‘risks’ will not seem relative.
Furthermore, Above the Influence relied heavily on the concept of information dissemination throughout its website to implement behavior change in teenagers. The campaign does not successfully incorporate social marketing theory; recognition is not given to price and exchange principles (Blisterin, Evans, & Driscoll, 2008). The campaign makes the assumption that the benefits of not smoking marijuana, not using alcohol, etc., are self-evident and therefore fails to recognize the perceived price of a behavior. Price highlights “the importance of recognizing perceived costs and benefits offered by competitors in understanding consumer behavior” (Blistein, Evans, & Driscoll, 2008, 27). Appropriate branding strategies and labeling provide the means to include this vital exchange principle. However, Above the Influence only focuses on risks of abusing drugs (i.e. cost) and forgets to include approaching the perceived “benefits.” According to social marketing and branding, both aspects need to be addressed for a consumer, the teenager, to successfully be targeted.
The theory of reasoned action, which the campaign is based upon, insists that “people are rational beings and therefore, they consider their actions before they decide to perform or not perform a behavior” (Salazar, 1991, 132). The campaign fails in that predicting behavior is not based on reason; just because one intends to perform a behavior does not mean they will actually do it. The campaign assumes that by advertising the risks of drugs, teenagers will decide that doing any type of drug is not worth those risks and therefore they will make the rational decision to avoid all drugs. Ariley describes that rational behavior “implies that, in everyday life, we compute the value of all options we face and then follow the best possible path of action” (Ariely, 2008, xx). However, human nature is prone to mistakes (irrational behavior) and prone to making decisions based on emotion (Siegel, 10/21). Above the Influence does not play on this phenomenon of emotional decision making.
If anything, the Above the Influence commercials may pose a reverse effect on teenagers; there is currently a huge number of parodies that make fun of the campaign posted on YouTube that show teenagers actually getting high in the home-made commercials. In this aspect, teenagers are rebelling in an effort to protect their freedom that the Above the Influence campaign threatens to take away, when “people think that a freedom is threatened they experience reactance, a motivational state aimed at restoring the threatened freedom” (Silvia, 2005, 277). The Above the Influence campaign failed to recognize that mankind will do anything to restore their freedoms if they feel as if they are trying to be taken away. The advertisements created do just that, they tell the viewer that they must live above the influence of drugs and alcohol or they will be just another statistic. By depicting teenagers that smoke marijuana as lazy and irresponsible, the campaign disassociates with its primary target audience, it ignites the sense of rebellion in them. The campaign does not give teens a sense of control, that lapse of control acts as the primary instigator for rebellion (Siegel, 11/10). The theory of reasoned action does not allow the Above the Influence campaign to account for “variance in behavior” and relies on “logistical construction” of beliefs and actions (Ogden, 2003, 424). Appropriate consideration was not given to the theory of psychological reactance. If this theory had been incorporated, Above the Influence would have avoided ostracizing the teens portrayed in the commercials.
Additionally, by using consequences in an effort to prevent teen drug use, drinking, etc, Above the Influence acts in a manner of threatening one’s personal freedoms. The campaign stresses teens on what not to do, how not to be. They strive to have the teen avoid being labeled (This can be seen in the commercials “stage hands” and “human puppet”). This acts as a major flaw in the campaign. Research shows that allowing a person to be labeled serves as a type of identity for a person. Depending on what type of label they are given, that person will meet the label’s expectations (Siegel, 12/2). Above the Influence does not provide a source of identification for teenagers, if the campaign had used labeling theory to its advantage, they would have created a sense of value for teenagers (Evans & Hastings, 2008, 357). Instead, the Above the Influence Campaign puts its focus on advertising risks, and consequentially inhibits the teen’s sense of control by threatening their person freedoms.
The United States Government Accountability Office released a report on the effects of the Above the Influence Campaign. The report claims that it “did not find that the youth anti-drug media campaign was effective in reducing youth drug use” (US Government Accountability Office, 2006). Social Scientists examined the campaign, and proceeded to find flaws within it. When the study was completed, it was determined that “among current, non-drug-using youth, exposure to the campaign had unfavorable effects on their anti-drug norms and perceptions of other youths’ use of marijuana—that is, greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perception that others use marijuana” (US Government Accountability Office, 2006). The teens that were exposed to the campaign retaliated and rebelled in response to the information they were receiving. The Government Accountability Office report confirmed that the wrong approach, and behavioral science theory is being used in this campaign. The Theory of Reasoned Action is not only failing to show positive results, it could actually be working in reverse. The amount of parodies on the Above the Influence commercials created on YouTube serve as evidence that the campaign could perhaps be altering teen’s perceptions of the frequency and amount of use of marijuana as much higher than actuality.
The failure of the Above the Influence campaign begins with the incorrect assumptions of the behavioral science theory it is based on. The campaign’s only shot at being successful relies on the idea that a person will consider an action or behavior, consider its alternatives, and then map out rational solutions to those considerations. Human beings just are not wired to behave in such a rational, coherent way. Successful interventions take into account practices of advertising and marketing theories to have an effect on, and change behavior. These interventions take into consideration that people act, behave, and make decision with their emotions, and not always with their brains. Above the Influence has all the resources to create an intervention that will actually have an impact on teenagers and drug use, but they are using the wrong approach. Unless they alter their core behavioral science theory, the Theory of Reasoned Action, this campaign will continue along its unsuccessful, resource wasting path.
Proposal for an Alternative Intervention
An alternative intervention to the Above the Influence Campaign could show significant improvements in the campaign’s current (lack of) results. By incorporating appropriate social science theories and learning from what does not tend to work within the current campaign, Above the Influence can re-organize its approach. The primary change necessary in the campaign is to alter the social science theory, the Theory of Reasoned Action, which Above the Influence is based on. Mass amounts of research and literature have shown this theory to not be an exceptionally effective one in the public health community (Salazar, 1991). Theories such as the theory of psychological reactance, labeling theory, as well as marketing and advertising theories should be taken into great consideration, and used in a combination, throughout the alternative intervention. In partnership with appropriate social science theories, the alternative intervention will look to other similar public health interventions that have proven to be successful, as well as avoid mistakes that Above the Influence made in creating their campaign.
The new intervention, let’s call it “Be the Influence,” will be based on the principles that the theory of psychological reactance, labeling theory, and marketing and advertising theories assume. This approach will counter the flaws of the Above the Influence Campaign. Be the Influence will target teens primarily through the understanding that a person will react to a perceived threat to their freedoms when they are told what to do as well as what not to do (Siegel, 11/10). The theory of psychological reactance “explains human behavior in response to the perceived loss of freedom in an environment, reactance is postulated to be experienced in response to the environment and used to help persons reestablish freedom and control of a situation” (Edwards, Li & Lee, 2002, 83). When there is a perceived threat to a person’s freedoms, the individual will act in opposition or resist pressures to conform to restore their freedoms. By avoiding the mistakes that Above the Influence made, Be the Influence will not tell teens what they should do but instead allow for a sense of control for the teens in that they can be their own influence and be a part of a group that stands to “be the influence” in their own lives and decision making. This alternative campaign will use psychological reactance to its advantage instead of falling victim to it. Similar to the successful intervention, truth campaign, which “captures the promotion of rebellion against the tobacco industry as a call to action to commit to a tobacco-free lifestyle,” Be the Influence will be a rebellion not against abusing drugs themselves, but a rebellion against unhealthy influences, similar to truth calling for a rebellion not against cigarettes, but the industry behind it (Douglas & Hastings, 2008, 352).
In correspondence with rebelling against negative influences that promote drug abuse, the alternative campaign will show teenagers in action, the advertisements need to be relatable to its target audience. The commercials and advertisements will incorporate teenagers standing up for their core values, the positive influences in their lives. Be the Influence needs to incorporate a promise based on support of those core values. Teenagers and people in general are prone to making decisions based on their emotional perception (Siegel, 10/21). Be the Influence can use this type of irrational decision making to its advantage. By including the advertising theory in the campaign’s core basis, a teenager’s emotions can be targeted. Be the Influence will provide its target audience with stories of real people surrounded by visual images and music to really try and captivate the emotions of teenagers. It will avoid the mistake that Above the Influence made by creating commercials that become unrealistic (depicting teens on puppet strings, using talking dogs, etc.). The most successful advertisers incorporate this basic idea in selling their products, the same process can be manipulated to meet the needs of public health initiatives (Ogilvy, 1964). Be the Influence needs to sell the idea that teenagers can be their own influence, they can rebel against the negative influences in their lives and make their own healthy choices. This will happen by creating emotionally stimulating advertisements and commercials.
Also, an important theory to look towards and incorporate in Be the Influence is marketing theory. How a product is packaged to an individual is crucial in whether or not that individual will want it. Be the Influence will be packaged in a way to meet the needs and wants of the target audience. Teenagers want to be a part of something, a group to identify with and a positive label to live up to, Be the Influence will be packaged and marketed as such. Currently, social marketing “is typically employed by public health and social scientists who believe the benefits of behavior change are self-evident, there is a tendency for the price and the exchange principle to be forgotten” (Blistein, Evans, & Driscoll, 2008, 27). By incorporating the ideas of price, promotion, products, and place when marketing the initiative, it is possible to influence voluntary behaviors (Grier & Bryant, 2005). Be the Influence will incorporate these principles of exchange (perceived costs and benefits of alternative behaviors) to successfully market through the wants and needs of teenagers. By using labeling and branding to acknowledge the crucial exchange principles, Be the Influence has a much greater shot at implementing behavior change among teenagers.
Be the Influence will acknowledge the labeling theory and incorporate it in the same way that successful public health interventions such as The 84 and Crush Campaign have. The labeling theory states that individuals will emit certain behavior and that correspond with their self-identification based on the terms that are used to describe them (Becker, 1997). The creator of the labeling theory, sociologist Howard Becker, describes the theory as a type of self-fulfilling prophecy for individuals. The Above the Influence campaign practically preaches against this theory in that they aim to have teens avoid being labeled as a pot head, smoker, etc. The campaign does not recognize that teens will respond better to being part of something, to identify with a group or organization. Be the Influence will allow for teens to be a member of a group who chooses to make their own educated, healthy decisions. By choosing a healthy, drug free lifestyle they will be able to associate themselves with other teens that choose to do the same. The 84 and Crush Campaign are great resources to look too in this aspect. They allow for “members” to be a part of their group by practicing safe behaviors. By creating this alternative intervention, teens will be able to identify themselves as being the ‘influence,’ they have control over their own lives and their own decisions.
In contrast to Above the Influence, Be the Influence will not preach about what not to do, but will offer healthy alternatives throughout the community. By being a part of Be the Influence, members will have access to online blogs where they can share their thoughts on healthy behaviors in an open forum, they can give advice or ask others questions on ways that they have a positive influence in their own lives as well as others. Mentoring programs can be initiated throughout the community for those that are members, to act as an example for someone younger (similar to a big brother/big sister program). This aspect will set a standard of a healthy lifestyle for the members, and will therefore allow them to rise to those standards and further lead by example. This type of labeling will be used in Be the Influence. The members will have expectations of practicing safe, healthy behaviors, and will then rise to the occasion of those expectations.
Additionally, Be the Influence will become a brand. The Crush Campaign has been incredibly successful in creating a public health initiative that mimics advertising a product in the business world. The campaign used the same principles of branding and labeling that companies who want to sell products in a market use and manipulated them to fit in the public health environment. The Crush Campaign provides a forum for non-smokers to take on a label as a ‘crush cutie’ (The Crush Campaign, 2010). It furthermore creates a brand by allowing members of the organization to access merchandise with the Crush logo, that brand becomes identifiable for members and further enhances their want to be a part of the label. Blistein, Evans, and Driscoll recognize that “branded campaigns promote a consumer orientation that emphasizes the nature of the exchange by appealing to the individual’s self-interest. This approach will become increasingly important to the field of public health as individuals are required to take a more active role in managing their health” (2008). By incorporating the same practices that successful businesses have, Be the Influence can appeal to teenagers at a much higher level of success. Creating a recognizable brand will play a key role in Be the Influence.
Be the Influence’s success is dependent on the incorporation of each of the previous behavioral science theories, and that they are used in a cohesive, complimentary manner with each other. It is important to take away conductive material from the failures of the Above the Influence campaign and learn from those mistakes in an effort to avoid making them again. Impacting a teenager’s behavior is albeit an incredibly difficult task, but it is not impossible. An alternative public health initiative, such as Be the Influence, has the potential to be successful and influential.
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