Alan I. Leshner
National Institute on Drug Abuse
The mass media have been used extensively for communicating drug abuse prevention messages to the public throughout the history of the drug abuse problem in the United States. With its rather checkered history—the “reefer madness” of the 1930s and the “scare tactics” of the 1970s—the mass media have not always met expectations as effective prevention tools. In fact, research on the drug information campaigns of the 1970s found little evidence of media effectiveness in preventing drug abuse. Indeed, some were concerned that these campaigns might have been counter-productive; they hypothesized that the campaigns inadvertently might have introduced children to information about drugs long before they would encounter them in their lives, and suggested much greater usage than was actually true. Indeed, as is shown in this volume, a major thrust in many drug prevention efforts today is to inform adolescents of the nonnormative nature of drug use in their age group.
With the limited exposure provided by public service advertising campaigns, and the challenging methodological problems that all mass media research entails, many of which are described in this volume (e.g., see Flay & Sobel, 1983, on attempting to control for external influences, and the proper interpretation of media-based research results), there was little to encourage research in this area. In the 1990s. however, there was a resurgence in research interest in media effects, and attention turned to how best to design campaigns and measure the impact of media in preventing substance abuse behaviors. Based on rigorous research paradigms similar to those used in school- and family-based prevention intervention research, and despite daunting methodological and logistical problems, some successful research models in substance abuse campaigns emerged (e.g., Donohew. Lorch, & Palmgreen, 1991; Flynn et al., 1994; Palmgreen, Donohew, & Lorch, 1995). These studies, in turn, have served as models for considerable research today. Although the logistical problems have not gone away, the methodological sophistication of cur