With the evolving legalization of marijuana in the United States, public health professionals, lawmakers, politicians and community members have raised concerns of marijuana use in the United States, particularly focusing on the youth of America. The Official State of Colorado Website for Retail Marijuana Information and Resources maintains that, “according to the 2011 Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, approximately 55 percent of youth tried marijuana at least once by the time they reached 12th grade. The percentage of youth that perceive marijuana use as dangerous is declining” (1). This concern is being addressed in the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, a $2 million campaign funded by the state of Colorado that the city of Denver launched in the summer of 2014, which markets the adverse effects of marijuana use to teenager’s 12 to 15 years olds (2). The Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign premise is simple: to dissuade teens from smoking marijuana, the argument is made that not enough scientific evidence is available to show the true effects of the drug on the human brain, particularly on the developing brain of teens. Therefore, teenagers who smoke marijuana become the test subjects for future studies on adverse effects of the drug. The campaign is backed up with human-sized rat cages placed in areas around the city of Denver where teens frequent to give a visual on what it is like to be a test rat. Television advertisements are also run which state the possible consequences of marijuana use among teenagers, the data of which, while mostly speculation, comes across extremely frightening to viewers. The full campaign can be explored at www.dontbealabrat.com.
Marijuana use among teenagers is a widely recognized public health concern; however, this intervention is a flawed approach to address the issue. The campaign targets individual viewers and does not take into the account social influences on marijuana use, the negative imagery associated with the campaign is adversely affecting it’s own success, and finally the campaign is flawed in the delivery of the anti-marijuana message to the target audience.
Critique Argument 1: Flaws in Targeting the Individual
The Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign relies on perceived threats to health by the individual. The campaign, targeted to teenagers 12 to 15 years old, assumes that those who see the campaign will learn that marijuana is potentially extremely dangerous, particularly to developing teenage brains and therefore one should not experiment with the drug. The campaign implements the health belief model to get this message across. The health belief model is one of the most widely used traditional interventions in health education and promotion and has six steps that individuals undergo to motivate themselves to act out or refrain from a particular health behavior. The core of the theory includes perceived susceptibility, perceived severity, perceived benefits, perceived barriers, cues to action and self-efficacy (3). There are a number of flaws in relying on the Health Belief Model in the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign. The greatest weakness of implementing this model is that it focuses on the individual person’s internal drive to reduce a health behavior. It assumes that a teenager exposed to this campaign will perceive him or her-self as being at high risk to being exposed to marijuana. The campaign also assumes that teenagers will recognize the “laundry list of troubling side effects [such as] schizophrenia, permanent IQ loss and stunted brain growth” (2) as severe threats to health. In addition, the target audience will make the rational decision that marijuana use has no benefits while the perceived benefits of not smoking marijuana will be a healthier life, free of becoming a test subject in future studies on adverse effects of the drug use among teenagers. The campaign could be identified as the cue to action to get teenagers to not experiment with marijuana, because of the potential troubling side effects. There is a major flaw in relying on individualized interventions and assuming a rational thought process in behavior change. Currently, the perceived risk of marijuana use is quite low among teenagers (4) which explains this campaign aims to drastically increase how teens view smoking the drug. However, the need to boost the perceived severity of the behavior does not necessarily equate to the behavior change, which is what this campaign assumes. Using the health belief model, the campaign assumes that teenagers will value their future health and that the potential adverse effects for using marijuana are too high to pick up the drug. What the campaign does not acknowledge is that health is an extremely weak core value, particularly among teenagers. It may be difficult for teenagers to see the perceived benefits of health, particularly when the study acknowledges that these risks are only speculated. Health is generally undervalued and often taken for granted. The health belief model is an ineffective tool in the Don’t Be A Lab Rat campaign because it relies too heavily on the assumption that individual teenagers will rationally make the decision that the potential side effects of using marijuana are too high a threat to experiment. However, it does not address the social or environmental factors that are even more influential to a teenager’s behavior (3). The advertisements of this campaign are specifically designed to induce fear into the target audience. Often the decision to try marijuana happens in social settings, which has much stronger influence over behavior change than an individual’s personal knowledge of harm that may (or may not) result. For this reason, an individualized perspective to behavior change is a flawed mechanism for the effectiveness in reducing teen marijuana use in Colorado.
Critique Argument 2: Flaws in the Visual Images
One aspect of the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign that undermines the success of the intervention is the use of rat cages throughout the city. The purpose of the human-sized rat cages placed outside the Denver Public Library and local Colorado skate parks where teens frequent is to give the harsh visual of what is it actually like to be inside a rat cage. The effect is also intended to have a high shock value. With the ability to let people walk inside a giant rat cage, the campaign hopes to express the vulnerability and suffocation of what being a lab experiment subject is truly like. The use of such a visual is intended to bring a harsh reality check to teens that those who use marijuana are indeed lab rats for future studies. However, this is a crude and unnecessary representation that has flawed the intervention. The core message of the campaign is, at this point in time there is inconclusive data on the harmful effects of marijuana use on developing brains. The rat cages do not have any purpose but to patronize and induce fear into those who use or are thinking about using the drug. This is an ineffective method to reduce the rates of teens using marijuana and ineffective in creating awareness of potentially dangerous effects of the drug. Fear as a core message in any intervention will not be met with success, particularly among teenagers (9). The entire message is overshadowed by the immense and dramatic delivery through the human-sized rat cages. In addition, the visual display is not respected in the city as it had quickly been vandalized with the words, “Smoking weed saved my life” and “Scientists can’t wait to see the positive effects it has on your brain” (6). The reason why the use of rat cages is a flaw to this campaign is due to the social reaction theory and the communications theory. The social reaction theory, also known as the labeling theory states that when a person does a behavior, they are defined by the behavior and consequently finds a personal identity in the label given to them by the behavior, which reinforces the repetition of said behavior (8). In the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, teens that have used marijuana are labeled as “Lab Rats” and are stigmatized to become merely test subjects that have no hope but to await future studies to tell them more conclusive data on what adverse health effects to expect. The label of being a “Lab Rat” would therefore become the identity of those who currently use marijuana, which will reinforce the behavior. While the campaign is designed to scare off teenagers from experimenting with the drug, it has no premise for those who have already. The campaign offers no advice or help for teenagers who have experimented with marijuana but do not want to become “lab rats”. Rather, it leaves teens to become the identity they are labeled as which is a major flaw in the implementation of this campaign. The communication theory is the basic principle that people respond better to persuasive messages when they have a connection with the object delivering the message (7). While it should matter what the message is, such as potential adverse effects of teenage marijuana use, it is really how well liked or how well received the delivery is. In the case of the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, the delivery of the message through the use of rat cages is not effective. There is no familiarity of the audience to the image of being a rat in a cage because this visual is not relatable. There is no sense of self-represented in a human-sized rat cages. This campaign works directly against communications theory because the use of rat-cages is the polar-opposite of what any person can relate to. The campaign demeans the audience because teenagers are not rats and they are not test subjects, which results in the message not effectively working on the target demographic, a major flaw in the construction of this campaign.
Critique Argument 3: Flaws in the Delivery of the Message
The delivery of the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign is the greatest flaw. The campaign runs fear-inducing messages to prevent teenagers from using marijuana. The campaign has a number of troubling statistics presented to the teenage demographic, that are designed to frighten the audience out of doing the behavior. Dramatized statistics used in this campaign include, “Teens who smoke pot at risk for later schizophrenia, psychosis”, “Who’s going to risk their brains to find out once and for all what marijuana really does?”, “You can’t escape the negative effects weed has on the teenage brain”, “Legal pot might make America’s kids stupider, say researchers”, “Smoking, vaping, the teenage brain can’t tell the difference”, “Weed can drop a teen’s IQ from average to the bottom 30%. Are you good with 70% of the world being smarter than you?”, and lastly “Care to volunteer for further research?” (2). The intimidation tactic is a direct use of the fear appeal theory. Fear appeal theory is a type of communication used in campaigns that attempts to bring fear to the audience as motivation to protect them from a particular behavior (9). The metaphor of being a lab rat is comparable to the failed “This is your brain on drugs” campaign, which also used the fear appeal theory to prevent substance abuse. “These campaigns are based on the assumption that by vividly demonstrating negative and life-endangering consequences of risk behaviors, people will be motivated to reduce their current risk behavior and adopt safer alternative behaviors”(9). However, studies have found that provoking fear as an intervention method is not successful in creating behavior change about the perceived health threat. Fear may actually result in “defensive reactions such as risk denial, biased information processing and allocating less attention to the health promotion messages, thus rendering threatening health information an ineffective behavior change method” (9). The delivery of fear in the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign is an ineffective tool to create the intended behavior change to prevent teens for using marijuana. The tone conveyed in the message is condescending to the target audience and has the potential to have the defensive reactions to the risk of the behavior, which is exactly of what the campaign was intended for. Additionally, according to the ideas of the psychological reactance theory, telling the audience not to do something will actually provoke them to engage in the behavior (8). And in the case of the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, the title itself is ordering the audience of teenagers not to use marijuana and become a “Lab Rat”, which has great potential to establish a reactance among teenagers to do the exact opposite. This psychological reactance actually promotes what the campaign is designed against, making this a major flaw in the design of this intervention.
Articulation of proposed intervention:
The core goal of this intervention is not just to reduce the rates of teenage use of marijuana. The overarching aim of the Don’t Be A Lab Rat campaign is to increase awareness of the potential adverse effects of using marijuana on developing teenage brains. Among teenagers, there is not much recognition that marijuana has adverse affects (1), particularly with the developing government legalization or decriminalization of the drug throughout the nation. With proper knowledge of the risks of using marijuana, teenagers can actively decide whether to use or not to use the drug. Increasing awareness of the risks of marijuana use among teenagers can have a positive effect on decreasing the rates of teenagers that use marijuana. While there is much debate on the true nature of harm that marijuana causes, the Don’t Be Lab Rat campaign focuses on the risk considering the speculated data provided. While there is no hard evidence marijuana actually causes schizophrenia, decreased IQ levels or stunted brain grown, in the next thirty years there could be. Basing an intervention on speculation and fear does not have the basis to be a successful public health campaign. Three interventions that should be considered to improve the campaign’s aim to improve the awareness of adverse affects of the drug and subsequently reduce rates of teenagers using marijuana include: Focus on social influences rather than individual behavior change; Create a model for behavior change; And finally, redesign the delivery with youth involvement. These interventions, based on social behavioral principles and theories, will improve the reception and effectiveness that the Don’t Be A Lab Rat attempts to have in improving teenage awareness of marijuana effects and subsequent use of the drug.
Defense of Intervention 1: Focus on Social Influence
The flaws in targeting individual behavior change through the Health Belief Model used by the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign could be improved if the focus shifted to the group level rather than the individual. There is much power held in social influences at the group level that can be used in changing the attitudes and behavior use of marijuana, particularly among teenagers. In fact, teenagers often base their decisions on what they think their peers do. The social norms theory could have a positive influence on reducing the rates of teenage marijuana use and perception. The Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign does have the exaggerated statistics that could be beneficial. However, instead of targeting the individual’s perception of the drug, target the group level using the social norms theory, which uses misconceptions about changing behavior to push people in a better direction. For example, Montana developed an educational campaign to reduce alcohol use among college students by advertising that “most” students have less than 4 drinks each week (13). By suggesting to the audience what seems to be the social norm, a campaign can effectively change behaviors of the individual, because the group will act how they think those around them are acting. In the case of reducing the rates of teen marijuana users, the campaign should focus on the declining rates of marijuana use in the state of Colorado. Bringing attention to how the group behaves can have an influence on an individuals own behavior change. For example, if the campaign advertisements said, “Most Colorado teens don’t use marijuana” those teens who see the advertisements today would think it’s the social norm around their peer group not to use marijuana, so they may not either.
Defense of Intervention 2: Modeling Behavior
An important aspect of the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign that has sparked controversial debate is the terminology of defining those who use marijuana. Labeling marijuana users as “Lab Rats” is an ineffective approach to influence teens not to use marijuana. According to the psychological reactance theory (12), This label stigmatizes those who use the drug and could possibly influence those who use to continue using as they have already been deemed “Lab Rats.” In order to support the aim of reducing rates of teen marijuana use, a more effective tool to use would be a positive label that would influence teens to join the cause, rather than be patronized by it. The labeling theory looks at how groups “create and apply definitions for deviant behavior” such as marijuana use among teenagers (9). Instead of using a negative label of what teenagers can become by using marijuana, the intervention should focus on a positive label that encourages teens to choose not to use the drug. The positive label will enforce healthy behavior, and give teenagers the control over deciding to become a marijuana-free individual. Creating a label that teens can positively identify with allows them ownership of their decision, rather than being told not to engage in the behavior. Additionally, the modeling theory should be applied in this intervention to give a good example of what marijuana-free teens can aspire to be. The modeling theory “refers to the process whereby people learn through the experiences or credible others, rather than through their own experiences” (14). Using the modeling theory, the campaign can promote well-respected teens throughout the communities in television advertisements and ad campaigns around the city where teenagers typically visit, including but not limited to schools, libraries, youth centers, outdoor sporting areas and shopping malls. Providing young teenagers a role model (in their community or a well-respected teen celebrity) as an example on how to make health-conscious decisions, encourages teens to make the choice not to smoke pot. The campaign would show teens it is the popular thing to not use marijuana and very much socially acceptable to stand up for their right to health. Positive influences would have more of an effect in increasing negative labeling and provoking statements that could actually cause the reverse reaction to marijuana use (15). Empowering the youth to actively seek knowledge on the risks of marijuana use, giving them ownership of their actions, and to be apart of a new movement for marijuana-free teens would be much more effective in reaching the target audience for this intervention than the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign.
Defense of Intervention 3: Redesign Delivery with Youth Involvement
When designing a campaign and how to portray the message it is imperative to know the audience the campaign is trying to reach. In the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign, the target demographics are teenagers between the ages of 12 to 15 years old. A successful campaign to strive towards in reducing teen marijuana use is the national Truth campaign, directed towards reducing teen tobacco use. The Truth campaign is exemplary in showing how to target youth in health promotion campaigns. In the research done on this campaign there was an overall consensus that youth do not like to be told what to do and that they “want the facts, and then want to be left to make their own educated decision…Tobacco [much like marijuana] was a significant, visible and readily available way for youth to signal that they were in control” (10). Additionally, research done for the Truth campaign found that humor rather than harsh realities are more effective in reaching younger people. It would be beneficial to model a campaign aimed to reduce teen marijuana use to the Truth campaign, particularly in a state like Colorado where the selling marijuana is now legal. Further steps to explore can be modeled after the Truth campaign involving the youth, using humor in advertisements rather than fear, and making a brand of the campaign. While the creative design team for the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign “talked to dozens of teens, in groups, on the street, and at concerts” (4), an annual youth summit and youth review boards, much like what the Truth campaign implemented would be most beneficial to create, in order to truly know the audience the campaign is attempting to reach. The involvement of youth in how they would be most receptive to advertisements and messages would greatly impact the success of this campaign.
While the Don’t Be a Lab Rat campaign intervention is successful in that it has sparked the conversation of teen marijuana use, it certainly has flaws that inhibit the campaign from effectively reaching the target demographic. With recommendations that include social influences, modeling techniques and involving the youth for a youth-related intervention, the state of Colorado could improve the efforts to increase the knowledge on potential adverse effects of marijuana use among teenagers.
(1) Colorado Marijuana [Internet]. [cited 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: https://sites.google.com/a/state.co.us/marijuana/
(2) Don’t Be A Lab Rat [Internet]. [cited 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: http://22.214.171.124/
(3) Edberg M. Social and Behavioral Theory in Public Health. Essentials of Health Behavior. Jones and Bartlett; 2007. p. 35–49.
(4) 8 JDA, 2014. New Colo. marijuana ad campaign captures unknown health impact on teens [Internet]. Colorado Public Radio. [cited 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.cpr.org/news/story/new-colo-marijuana-ad-campaign-captures-unknown-health-impact-teens
(5) Vandals Don’t Take Long To Hit Rat Cages Used In Anti-Pot Ad Campaign [Internet]. [cited 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: http://denver.cbslocal.com/2014/08/11/vandals-dont-take-long-to-hit-rat-cages-used-in-anti-pot-ad-campaign/
(6) Ruiter RAC, Kessels LTE, Peters G-JY, Kok G. Sixty years of fear appeal research: current state of the evidence. Int J Psychol. 2014 Apr;49(2):63–70.
(7) Andrews JC, Netemeyer RG, Durvasula S. Believability and Attitudes toward Alcohol Warning Label Information: The Role of Persuasive Communications Theory. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing. 1990 Jan 1;9:1–15.
(8) Ritzer G. Encyclopedia of Social Theory [Internet]. 2455 Teller Road, Thousand Oaks California 91320 United States: SAGE Publications, Inc.; 2005 [cited 2014 Dec 11]. Available from: http://www.sage ereference.com/view/socialtheory/n161.xml
(9) Broadhead RS. A Theoretical Critique of the Societal Reaction Approach to Deviance. The Pacific Sociological Review. 1974 Jul 1;17(3):287–312.
(10) Hicks J. The Strategy behind Florida’s “truth” campaign. Tobacco Control. 2001(10):3–3.
(11) Woller KMP, Buboltz WC, Loveland JM. Psychological Reactance: Examination across Age, Ethnicity, and Gender. The American Journal of Psychology. 2007 Apr 1;120(1):15–24.
(12) Silvia P. Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology. 2005;27(3):277–84.
(13) Thaler R, Cass S. Following the herd. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. p. 53–71.
(14) Theories and Applications, part two. Theory at a Glance: A Guide for Health Promotion Practice. National Cancer Institute; p. 9–21.
(15) Brooks-Gunn J, Donahue E. The Power of Positive Marketing. The Future of Children: Children and Electronic Media. 2008;18(1):181–204.