Thursday, December 18, 2014

Critique of the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” Campaign-Xiaohui Cao


The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign, launched August 2014, is a marijuana-education campaign focusing on teens in Colorado. The $2 million campaign is created by the state of Colorado and the city of Denver, and founded by legal settlements with pharmaceutical companies.
The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign includes a website, interactive theater ads and TV commercials. Besides, 12-foot-long, 8-foot-high rat cages are used at the corner of street in Denver to raise teens’ attention on marijuana use. The campaign’s online website has a lot of statistics on adverse effects of using marijuana in teens. The TV commercials also suggest that marijuana impairs teens’ brain and causes long-term mental problems. By using disputed facts, the campaign want to warn the teens not to be a lab rat in finding the adverse health effects of the drug.

Marijuana use by adolescents has been a problem in the US for a long time. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (1), marijuana use among teens has been increasing since the mid-to-late 2000s. In 2013, 7.0 percent of 8th graders, 18.0 percent of 10th graders, and 22.7 percent of 12th graders used marijuana in the past month. Also, studies have shown that drug abuse could lead to other problem behaviors such as fighting, stealing, vandalism, and early sexual activity. Therefore, effective anti-drug campaigns targeting on adolescents are important to decrease the prevalence of drug use in this population. However, the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign has been controversial since it was created. In this paper, the flaws of this campaign will be discussed and new intervention will be proposed.

Part One: Critique Arguments

Argument one: Scare tactics do not work well on teens
The most obvious flaw the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign makes is that the campaign relies heavily on scare tactics such as fear-based statistics. On the website of the campaign, there are a lot of scary statistics from research that connect marijuana use to high risk of certain disease such as schizophrenia, depression, stroke, heart attack and etc. The website also emphasizes the negative effects of the drug on the teens’ brain, saying that marijuana could shrink parts of the teenage brain and that teen marijuana users may lose an IQ of 8 points permanently. In addition to the scary statistics, the campaign also put giant human-sized “lab rat cages” all over Colorado, trying to warn teens to stay away from experimenting such adverse health risks. However, it is shown that teens are less likely to believe the message and tend to discredit the messenger when exaggerated dangers, false information are delivered (2).

These threatening statistics and “lab rat cages” are used by the campaign with regard of the Health Belief Model. Health Belief Model, developed in the 1950s, argues that individuals are ready to change their health behavior if they believe that they are susceptible to the condition and the condition has serious consequences (3). By using the model, the campaign is intending to raise the teens’ awareness of severity of the outcomes and simply assuming that the teens will realize the terrible consequences of smoking drug and thereby stay away from it. However, the Health Belief Model may not work very well on teens because its limitations under the condition.
One assumption the campaign makes is that teens are rational so that they will weigh their degree of risk and analyze the cost-benefit of their behavior and make the right decision to stay away from drugs (4). However, the reality is that individuals may not be rational thinking when making decisions (5).  This is especially true when it comes to teens. For example, one study shows that “a youth’s reason for using tobacco had everything to do with emotion and nothing to do with rational decision making” (6). In the campaign, teens may be aware of all the adverse effects of marijuana might have on their health but still use the drug. One theory that might suitable for this case is the Optimistic Bias Theory. According to optimistic bias theory, individuals tend to underestimate their own risk of having a bad outcome in the future (7).  For example, one study shows that optimistic bias is linked to sexual risk taking in youth (8). In the “Don’t be a lab rat” campaign, teens may think they are invulnerable to the adverse effects, and such optimistic expectations make the fear-based statistics ineffective.

Also, health may not be a strong core value appealing to teens. The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign focuses on raising the teens’ awareness of adverse health effects of using marijuana. It emphasizes the relationship between teenage marijuana use and risks of many serious diseases such as schizophrenia, depression, stroke, and heart attack. Unfortunately, teens may in fact have less care about their health. In other words, health is not a strong core value for this particular population. In advertising theory, it is important to know what your target audiences really want and need. If health is not the most important value teens have been seeking, it is less likely that raising awareness of health would work in the campaign.

Argument two: Psychological reactance is created among the teens
Another reason why the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign is flawed is that it may introduce psychological reactance among the teens through wrong messages and wrong messagers. According to psychological reactance theory (9), when people are told to do something or not to do something, they think their freedom is threatened or lost. As a result, they will experience a motivating pressure towards reestablishing their threatened freedom by doing the things that they are told not to do (10). When teens see the slogan of the campaign “Don’t be a lab rat”, they may think their freedom is being taken away because they are asked not to use the drug. In order to reform their freedom, teens will instead begin to use marijuana, which is the opposite of behavior that the campaign suggests. Therefore, exposing to the campaign may in fact motivate their willingness to initiate using of marijuana rather than keeping them away from the drug.

Also, the campaign incorrectly uses “researchers” as their messagers to deliver the message that using drug is bad for teens. Psychological reactance could arise because such authoritative messagers have little in common with the teens and therefore are less persuasive. This disconnection between teens and messagers would make it hard for messagers to successfully persuade teens to stay away from marijuana.

Argument three: Failing to account for social norms
The third reason why the campaign is considered flawed is that it only focuses on the change of individual teens’ behaviors to using marijuana rather than taking into account the effect of social norms, which is another limitation of the Health Belief Model (4). Health Belief Model is most suitable for one time decision such as getting a flu shot. When coming to the decision of quitting from drug, HBM may not work in such a complex condition where other factors involved. Instead, drug use is the outcome of the interaction between intrapersonal factors and social factors such as influence from peers and parents (5). In this situation, social norms theory is more proper to use since it emphasizes the importance of understanding environment and interpersonal influences in changing behaviors in teens.

According to the Social Norms Theory (11,12), misperceptions of how peers think and act will influence teens’ behavior. When information on peer group norms is incorrectly present, teens are more likely to overestimate or underestimate the prevalence of the behavior among their peers. Usually, they overestimate the value of problem behaviors and underestimate healthy behaviors, tending to adopt the problem behavior (12). Studies have shown that American students usually misperceived the norms of their peers by perceiving considerably exaggerated drug use as typical at their school (13). This perceived norm is that the typical student is a much more frequent user than the self-reports indicated. Therefore, it is quite likely that in the “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign, teens may incorrectly perceive a higher prevalence of marijuana use among their peers and thereby initiate using of the drug. In addition, if their peers who use the drug seem to be some cool guys, their likelihood of engaging in the drug may increase further. Based on the report of the National Survey On American Attitudes On Substance Abuse Xvii: Teens (2012), 47% of teens who have seen pictures of their peers partying with alcohol or marijuana on social networking site such as Facebook and MySpace said that it seemed like the teens in the pictures were having a good time (14).

Part Two: Proposed Intervention
The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign seems to be flawed and ineffective because of the above reasons. Therefore, a more effective campaign that may be needed to reduce the prevalence of drug use among teens in Colorado. Three more effective approaches that address the above problems in the campaign are discussed below.

First, to address the problem that teens do not concern much on health risks presented in the scary statistics, the campaign should use personal stories and focus on core values that are more important to teens. Second, in order to avoid or reduce psychological reactance, use similar messagers and positive message to make the messagers more persuasive and to make the message more compelling. Third, using Social Norms Theory instead of Social Belief model to account for environmental and interpersonal influences.

Defense one: Using stories instead of scare tactics
The first approach for the proposed intervention is to use personal stories instead of scary statistics. Based on the Optimistic Bias Theory, teens are likely to think their own risks of getting disease are lower than the present risks in the general population. Therefore, instead of using statistics that show risks of disease among the general population, the campaign could use personal stories to raise awareness. For example, put stories of their peers on the website and create videos with images and music. One thing need to be aware is that using health as a core value in the story seems to be ineffective. The campaign should do research and find values that their target audiences really want and use that value in their stories. For example, since most teens regard independence and freedom as important values, the story could be a peer losing independence because of using drug.

Defense two: Using similar communicators and positive messages
In order to avoid psychological reactance, the campaign should change their message to a more positive one and use communicators who are familiar and similar to the teens. For example, using peers, especially the most popular ones in school to deliver the message could better make the message persuasive. Popular peers are similar to and welcomed in the teens, and thereby will be more persuasive than researchers. Research suggests that similarity can increase the positive force toward compliance and decrease the negative force toward resistance (15). Also, studies show that similarity increases the likelihood of compliance by increasing liking for the communicators (16). In addition to change of communicators, the campaign should also change their message to one that makes teen feel their freedom is ensured rather than threatened.

Defense three: Telling the truth and creating sense of belonging
To address the problem where teens are likely to overestimate the prevalence of marijuana use in their peers and engage in using the drug, correction of misperception is needed. Studies have shown that correction of the misperception could reduce prevalence of certain problem behavior (17). One possible way to correct the misperception is to let individuals know the actual healthier norms. This is based on the power of the Social Norms Theory, which indicates that social norms could influence people in both unhealthy and healthy ways (12). When individuals have a perception that most people do not use drugs, they will also less likely to use drugs. Therefore, rather than presenting a lot of unreliable information on potential dangers of marijuana and unintentionally making them perceive an overestimated prevalence of drug use, the campaign should show teens the truth -- accurate information about the actual healthier norms among their peers. For example, the campaign could do surveys to find out the teens’ perceived prevalence of marijuana use among peers and the actual normative prevalence, and then show these figures to the teens.

Another approach to account for peer influence on drug use among teens is to create sense of association and belonging. This could be done through branding and creating an identical logo for the campaign. In order to make the teens join and embrace in their campaign, the Florida’s “truth” campaign make “truth” a brand, successfully gaining wide awareness (6). The “Don’t Be a Lab Rat” campaign could also make their own brand similar to “truth” and create a cute and identical logo to let more teens join their campaign. Based on the Social Norms Theory, since teens are likely to be influenced by their peers, the campaign could also create sense of belonging through their online website and social networking site such as Facebook. Teens could join their peer group online, share their positive experience and stories, and get positive feedbacks from their peers. If they see a majority of their peers are living a positive and healthy lifestyle, they will less likely to engage in an unhealthy behavior such as using drugs. Researchers have analyzed studies on college students’ binge drinking and found that web-based feedback could have a positive effect on the problem (18).

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