How effective are media campaigns?

Trying to determine whether people have changed their drug taking because they saw a campaign is near impossible to measure. Many surveys about drugs show that most people’s main source of information about drugs is the popular media. Most media output is intended to be informative or entertaining. The general public is often dependent on the media for information about any new phenomenon. An example of this, the emergence of HIV/AIDS in the early 1980s, led to all sorts of negative images and press sensationalism that was actually providing false messages and information. The conceptions that these images caused were difficult to break.

Skin care by Heroin

The media often exaggerates or misrepresents reports of drug use and users. For example, in portraying heroin use, they often use stereotypical images, such as a spotty, skinny and ill user, living a life of crime and poverty. For example, in January 2000 a campaign by Barnardo’s used heroin use as a means for shocking people. The poster shows a baby injecting himself with heroin while sitting in his own faeces in a dirty back street, as a way to make a connection between heroin use and a difficult childhood. The combination of a young vulnerable baby and drug use was a common tool for eliciting horror, sympathy and abhorrence.

These campaigns are deliberate attempts to use the media as a tool for preventing drug use, by communicating the potential horrors of heroin addiction. While not being wrong (in the sense that the images can and do represent the consequences of heroin use in some instances), they are unhelpful as a way of understanding much about drug use and addiction.

One obvious consequence of these media campaigns is that media reporting of drugs in the more sensationalist forms is given added credibility. Research that estimates the impact of such campaigns indicates that those who are anti-drugs in the first place have their feelings confirmed, but there is little to indicate that any sort of scare campaign actually stops somebody experimenting with drugs.

One unintended effect of scare campaigns, which give such massive prominence and visibility to drugs such as heroin, is that they may actually increase experimentation. In its 1984 report Prevention, the government’s own advisory body, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs warned, ‘Whilst we accept the need, in appropriate circumstances, for education to include factual information about drugs and their effects, we are concerned about measures which deliberately present information in a way which is intended to shock or scare. We believe that educational programmes based on such measures on their own are likely to be ineffective or, at the very worst, positively harmful’. Thus, for some young people, branding the use of mysterious and dangerous substances as antisocial and deviant may (especially if they have seen peers using these drugs with few of the effects sensationalised by the media) provide a focus and new outlet through which their frustrations may be vented and their resistance demonstrated, while for others it may merely spark their curiosity.

Campaigns are, however, useful if targeted properly. For instance campaigns that draw attention to dangerous injecting techniques or booklets or services that can give useful information such as harm reduction, can help change people’s drug using behaviour. A campaign by the Study Safely campaign in London, issued booklets and posters on drugs and ways to avoid danger or getting into trouble at college. Students found the booklet informative and useful in avoiding harm or unwanted experiences.

A 2018 review looking at 24 studies of media campaigns designed to educate about alcohol consumption found that campaigns achieved changes in knowledge, attitudes and beliefs about alcohol but there was little evidence of reductions in alcohol consumption.


The Government initiative ‘Stoptober’ is a 28 day challenge to give up smoking in the month of October, first launched in 2012. The campaign encourages smokers to participate and stick to the challenge with videos including interviews with ex-smokers and doctors and motivational social media posts. There is also an accompanying app from the NHS. In 2019 the campaign was evaluated by Public Health England, the report states that in 2019, the campaign generated quit attempts among 25% of all smokers and recent ex-smokers, with 9% reporting that they were still not smoking after 4 weeks. 

Dry January

Alcohol Change UK’s campaign ‘Dry January’ challenges participants to abstain from alcohol for the month of January. Research from Alcohol Change showed one in seven UK adults (estimated as 8.8 million people) planned to go alcohol-free for 31 days in January in 2023. The campaign includes an app, emails and online community group. Alcohol Change UK reviewed the campaign in 2019, in 2019 54,000 people entered data into the Try Dry app in January and 21,715 entered data every day during the month. 11,111 (51%) people stayed completely dry. 17,736 (70%) drank three times or fewer, and 19,373 (89.2%) managed 22 dry days or more.

See also:

Does drug education stop drug use?

I-Know Knowledge Hub, Education and Prevention – Drugs

I-Know Knowledge Hub, Education and Prevention – Alcohol

Updated March 2023