Challenging Dogma - Spring 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Talking dogs do more harm than good: robbing teens of dignity-Jadie Kim

On an average day in 2006, about 1.2 million adolescents, age 12 to 17, smoked cigarettes, 631,000 drank alcohol, and 586,000 used marijuana (1). In addition, about 49,000 adolescents used inhalants, 27,000 used hallucinogens, such as ecstasy, 13,000 used cocaine, and 3,800 used heroin. Nearly 8,000 adolescents drank alcohol for the first time, 4,300 used an illicit drug for the first time, 4,000 smoked their first cigarette, 3,600 smoked marijuana for the first time, and 2,500 used pain relievers for non-medical reasons for the first time (1, 2). These staggering numbers of teens being exposed to drugs and alcohol is the reason why it is crucial to design a meaningful and effective antidrug campaign.

In an effort to dissuade teens from starting or continuing drug use, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy implemented the “Above the Influence” campaign. “Above the influence” campaign has online support as well as televised advertisements which include several talking dog series in cartoon and non-cartoon modes. The main focus of this campaign is to advocate against teen marijuana use and help teens steer clear of smoking and other undesirable habits(6). This campaign, however, has not been shown to decrease teen drug use rate and has even lead to more teens using marijuana (7). A research company hired by the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that the “Above the Influence” campaign at a cost of $1.4 billion between, did not work: It stated that: “greater exposure to the campaign was associated with weaker anti-drug norms and increases in the perceptions that others use marijuana."(4). Despite the findings that the campaign was not working, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign continues to produce and air similar types of antidrug ads spending $220 million in fiscal years 2005 and 2006(4). The Office of National Drug Control policy is to blame for implementing an ineffective intervention that does not reduce teen drug use and thereby allowing teens to continue drug use. The reasons for the failure of the talking dog advertisements by “Above the Influence” is due to a lack of respectable intervention, inappropriate use of social learning theory and incomplete guidance to success.

The Interventions’ Failure to Generate Respect

What do teens really think about these talking dog ads? One of the ads titled “Dog” features a girl, Lindsey, in her kitchen when her dog climbs up on a chair and starts talking. The dog expresses that he misses his old friend and implies that she has changed since she started smoking marijuana. While the dog is talking, Lindsey just looks on with a disbelief look but does not say a word (10).

This advertisement gives the leading role to the dog by allowing the dog to do all the talking, and misleading the teens to follow the examples of the dog. Role models must evoke trust, admiration, and respect from the observer (5). This talking dog anti drug campaign fails to effectively deter teen drug use because this ad fails to connect with the youth to evoke trust, admiration and respect. “Dog” is a poorly constructed anti drug commercial dog. The commercial relies on an unrealistic figure to convey its message- a talking dog. The talking dog undermines the message that the commercial is trying to convey. The note at the end of the commercial ‘how would you tell a friend’ in small print might explain what the commercial is trying to say. It is suggesting that friends should look out for each other and give each other support to quit. This is a good suggestion, but the main message has been pushed aside until the last part of the commercial and it may not even get noticed by the teens. In addition, the commercial relies heavily on teen’s soft spots for pets. If the intention was to stimulate teen’s emotional part that is connected to dogs, this ads may work but only for the pet owners. Also, it is not likely that the teen’s soft spot for dogs is associated with drug use.

It is not hard to find out what the teens really think of this ad; the comments left in response to the video suggest that the commercial is not being taken seriously by teens. One comment “I want the dog to talk to me... Pass me a blunt!” implies that this advertisement may actually encourage teen drug use (7, 10). In another comment “she's not doing pot, the dog is” shows how easy it is to misunderstand this advertisement. These reactions clearly indicate that this ad has failed to generate sense of real and serious danger to drug use. Instead, this ad has become the laughing stock among the teens and the subject of their jokes because there is no air of truth and it is unrealistic. Many teens went on to create parodies of this ad that mock the talking dog and its message.

The Message is not Coming from Their Peers

Another reason why talking dog ads by “Above the Influence” campaign failed to effectively decrease teen’s drug use is their failure to introduce and incorporate role models who comes from the teens’ peer group(9). According to Albert Bandura's social cognitive theory, the best way to change behavior is to shift people's overall image of what behaviors are normal and valuable within one's peer group(8). “Above the Influence” has given the role to a talking dog that teen’s peers should have. It is obvious that teens do not consider talking dogs as their peers, but the creators of these advertisements must not have realized the importance of this concept.

Another example of a talking dog advertisement is “Stop Looking At Me” cartoon by “Above the Influence”. It starts with a dog sitting and observing a young male teen smoking and the teen tells the dog that he can stop anytime he wants to. When the dog challenges him to stop now, the guy makes a sad face and suggest next week. The dog expresses disappointment then walks out (12).

If enough thought is given to this commercial, one might receive the message that the makers of this ad wanted to convey. The message, perhaps, is that smoking marijuana will disappoint and hurt our close friends. But at a superficial level, what this ad really suggests is that the dog has the ability to talk and think at a higher level than the teens on drugs. It also suggests that if they don’t stop the drug use, they will disappoint their dogs.

The dog does not say much in this ad, but the comments made by the dog, such as “you disappoint me” can seem judgmental and implies that the dog is making better life choices than the humans. This approach to prevent teen drug use will not only be ineffective but evoke disrespect and irritation from the teens. Teens have expressed their rebellion towards the disloyal dog in this ad by creating parodies. Parodies would start in a similar setting as “Stop Looking At Me” but after the dog says “you disappoint me” the teen shows his anger and acts violent towards the dog. It is inappropriate to expect this talking dog to set up a positive social environment and for it to suggest changing social norms surrounding drug use.

This campaign insults the intelligence of the youth because it does not warn against the real dangers of drug use, and this campaign does nothing to suggest changing social norms surrounding drug use. In many ways, the dog in this commercial is portrayed as superior to the teen. The body language of the dog walking away from the smoking teen is an example. The problem with this approach is that teens are asked to look up to their dogs. Youth is an important stage in identify formation. In each stages of identify formation, the behavior changes in response to social environment (11). It is important for the drug council to understand this and incorporate all the aspect of health behavior modifications to encourage drug cessation.

The Ads Fail to Convey Relevant Facts

Conveying a complete and perfect message about the dangers of drug use and solution for the problem in a 30 second ad is difficult to do. The challenge for “Above the Influence” to do this difficult task was perhaps the main reason for a random style of advertisement that was meant to trigger some deep psychological part that impacts teen’s decisions. But it’s unlikely that it is profound enough to trigger the right part of teen’s brain for them to completely understand the consequences of drug use. The advertisements miss use of psychology and under utilizing various health behavior models have caused the anti-drug programs a lot of money and time. And their continued efforts fail to save teens from the dangers of drug use.

The “Walk Yourself” is another 15 second cartoon commercial by “Above the Influence” very similar to “Stop Looking At Me”. The dog looks at the young male teen who is lying down smoking marijuana, the teen then tells the dog to walk himself and the dog walks away from him saying “You disappoint me” (3). The main message of this commercial is exactly same as “Stop looking at Me”. Smoking marijuana disappoints close friends and dogs. One might wonder why they have wasted money and time creating similar types of ad that are not very effective.

Like the previous two advertisements, this commercial does not generate respect from the teens nor does it use the dog effectively. The main reason why this ad has fails to guide the teens in the right path is because it does not convey the real facts of drug use. It does not show the consequences of continued drug use on themselves, how it might affect their family, and their future. It does not take the opportunity to explain what truly happens to their dog. It also does not demonstrate how one might attempt to stop the drug use and the hope that they are capable of taking control over their undesirable habits. The Transtheoretical model is a good example of a health behavior model that emphasizes the importance of intervention and guidance in stages (5). The failure of “Above the Influence” to utilize this model, as it relates to behavior change, is a primary reason for its unsuccessful campaign. Teens will not understand the simple and direct message this ad sends, rather they will view this ad as insignificant and unimportant. It might even stimulate rebellious and curious nature of teens making them more interested in drug use (4).


Teens follow the norms set forth by their peers in hope of fitting in and being accepted. Creating and promoting a drug free norm is the only way to affectively cure America of teen drug use.

The advertisements by “Above the Influence” campaign has been criticized for undermining teen’s intellect and being offensive by using stereotypes (4). The campaign’s lack of understanding teens, inappropriate use of social learning/cognitive theory, and inability to connect with teens at their level has failed to reach out to teens in America.

Despite the teen’s harsh comments toward these ads and its confirmed ineffectiveness, “Above the Influence” media campaigns have been viewed through YouTube numerous times by teens. Teens may be watching for entertainment, but they may also be actively seeking out for reasons and ways to get help for their desire to stop drug use. Public health agencies utilizing behavior change theories correctly can successfully reach out to the teens who are seeking help, and make real differences in teen’s life that will result in less drug use.


Understanding teens

Anti-drug advertisements that use talking dogs have failed because they undermine teens’ intellect and fail to inspire healthy behaviors. In order to create an intervention that discourages teen drug use, it is important to understand how teens think and what is important to them. Most teens are initially introduced to drugs and alcohol by their friends and often are pressured into their first try (6). This initial exposure can also be the inertia behind recurrent drug use (6). Campaigns and advertisements should not overload the teens with information on drug use and its harmful side effects. Rather, they should allow teens to feel respected, to feel they have the freedom to choose, and to help them realize their role and responsibility in shaping the character of their family and this country.

Many teens have misconceptions about drugs and do not realize the true consequences of drug use. While the majority of teens begin drug use due to curiosity, many become dependent on drugs and use them to fill a void. Without proper interventions, this habitual drug use will hinder their adult life and it might debilitate them from holding jobs and leading a good family.

Teen drug use has significant short and long term consequences, therefore it is important for public health officials to intervene for the safety of America (6).


The proposed intervention will utilize Framing as the foundation of delivering an anti- drug use. The intervention, “Connection”, uses commercials and a spokesperson to convey the message. The key spokesperson for the intervention is Michael Phelps, a 16 time Olympic gold medalists who was caught using marijuana (17). Framing is key in producing this commercial. In particular, the commercial will not to portray Mr. Phelps as being punished for his actions, but rather highlight his willingness to share his thoughts with teens in America.

The advertisement will start with a series of clips of Michael at winning moments at the Olympics, and then it will turn to a testimonial from Mr. Phelps on why he chose to smoke marijuana. He explains his experiences, how the marijuana made him feel, how long the affect lasted, and what happened after the affect disappeared. Mr. Phelps would then go on to explain the consequences of his choice to smoke marijuana, the negative publicity, and the disappointment from his mother, colleagues, friends, and fans. He also would express remorse for breaking the law, and disappointing everyone especially himself. He elaborates on how it adversely affects his character, qualities, career and image. His purpose would be not to generate feelings of punishment but to express feelings of regret for potentially ruining his career. Lastly, he would provide teens with resources on how to reach out for help. These resources will have suggestions on how to stop, how to deal with peer pressure and a phone number for personalized assistance.

The primary resource that the commercial points to is a website where teens can join the fight for a drug free America. The website can be designed to provide interaction with teen celebrities, opportunities to volunteer at their local communities, and chance to participate in leadership conferences. Teens that volunteer and serve in their community tend to have good family relationships and communication skills that will prevent them from engaging in risky behaviors such as drug use (16).

Respect and being respected

The reason why talking dog commercial failed to lower the teen drug rate in America is because the commercial’s spokesfigure fails to generate respect. According to the social cognitive/learning theory, models must evoke trust, admiration, and respect from the observer (5). Instead of using an unrealistic figure, as seen in “Dog”, the better approach would be to use a figure that teens can connect with and relate to. For this reason having Michael Phelps, or other teen celebrities as spokespeople, will generate the necessary respect for the message being delivered.

Another reason why “Connection” will be more effective is because it treats teens as a respectable and intelligent group by using spokespeople of stature. With Mr. Phelps’s impressive record, anyone would consider him a hero and look up to him for his strength, talent, determination, and perseverance. He already has earned the respect that will hold teens’ attention and allow them to respect him for his honesty and realness.

This intervention also recognizes and understands teens’ desire to be respected. Teens, especially those who feel that they have failed to achieve at the level of standards academically and morally by using drugs, may feel less respected by their peers and by adults(14). Opportunities such as leadership conferences, serving their communities, and becoming a role model themselves will give teens the feel of being respected by their community. Teens being respected are more likely to show their respect for others and follow directions of authorities better than teens who feel that they were not respected (19).

A message from their peers

The advertisement by “Connection” featuring Mr. Phelps will work better than the talking dog advertisement by speaking to the teens at their eye level in two different ways. First, the teens will be able to relate to Mr. Phelps better than they can to the talking dog. The ads by “Above the Influence” had inappropriate expectations for talking dogs to set the social norm (9). Mr. Phelps’s explanation, that the behavior he was engaged in was not the norm and he would not recommend for anyone to try, can set up a positive social environment and suggest changing social norms surrounding drug use(8).

Second, this advertisement utilizes an advertising and branding theory that uses endorsement from a revered athlete to add attractiveness and credibility to the source (13). This approach will allow teens to be open to the messages coming from this campaign. This intervention also promises the benefit of drug cessation by focusing on teen’s character development, teaching valuable skills, such as conflict avoiding, and leadership skills which will help them to become role models to the next generations. Giving teens an opportunity to be part of a positive social network that uses positive psychology will allow teens to help each other to change together and generate feelings of self importance, self-efficacy, and connection to others by providing them motivation to become socially acceptable individuals (18).

The campaign website can also feature other teen celebrities and athletes that have joined the fight for a drug free America. Their main role would be to give teens the sense of connection to a larger network made up of people their age. Teens will have easier time sharing their experiences and their concerns to each other than to adult authoritative figures (8).

The truth and nothing but the truth

One of the main reasons why most anti-drug ads do not work is because it fails to convey the full and complete message about the drug use. Most ads may actually work against the ad by unintentionally implying that others teens are using the drugs which can stimulate teens curiosity to try drugs (4, 15). This web based “Connection” will feature peer role models who has and has not used drugs explaining their direct or indirect effect of drug use. Unlike the talking dog ads that left the teens hanging at the end of the commercial without proper guidance, this campaign will use Transtheoretical model to tailor different intervention to meet the needs of different teens at various levels(5).

Another reason for the failure of “Above the Influence” is its lack of simple and straightforward message in its advertisements. Instead of utilizing hard to understand, deep thought requiring random anti-drug advertisements with lots of room for misunderstanding, “connection” will use non complicated language and images by their peer role models to tell the basic truth and consequences of drug use.


While it maybe impossible to create a perfect intervention that will eliminate all teen drug use, understanding teens and utilizing appropriate social and health behavior models will have a better outcome in discouraging teen drug use. Public health professionals should work with teens to find a solution rather than feeding teens with information that teens can’t relate to. This new intervention will allow teens to feel respected and feel connected to the real world and generate feeling of self-efficacy and self-importance which in turn will discourage teen drug use.


1. Lebelle,L. (2008) Drugs and Teens Substance Abuse. Focus Adolescent Services.

2. National Institute on Drug Abuse (August 2008) NIDA Info Facts: Nationwide Trends

3. “Walk Yourself” The Ads. Above the Influence.

4. Ryan Grim, A White House Drug Deal Gone Bad: Sitting on the Negative Results of a Study of Anti-Marijuana Ads, Slate magazine, September 7, 2006.

5. Grizzell, J. (1/27/2007). Behavior Change Theories and Models.

6. About. Above the Influence.

7. United States Government Accountability Office. Contractor’s National Evaluation Did Not Find That the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use. Washington, DC: GAO 06-818, 2006.

8. Azar, B Antismoking Ads that curb teen smoking. American Psychology Association. January 1999.

9. University of Georgia (2007, July 20). Why Some Anti-smoking Ads Succeed And Others Backfire. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 7, 2009, from

10. “Dog”. The Ads. Above the Influence.

11. Erikson, E. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950.

12. “Stop Looking at Me” The Ads. Above the Influence.

13. Tellis, Effective Advertising: Understanding When, How, and Why Advertising works.

14. Mclaughlin K. Teens crave respect as much as adults do. January 20, 2009.

15. Hornik R, et al. Effects of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign on youths. Am J Public Health 98(12) 2008.

16. Ma L. Teen Spirit: Give and Let Live. Psychology Today April 29, 2007.

17. Svrluga, Barry. "Phelps Sets Olympic Record". The Washington Post. 2008-08-09.

18. Thomas Kelly, Positive psychology and adolescent mental health: false promise or true breakthrough?, 2004

19. Dillon R. Respect. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Jan 2, 2007.

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