One technique many advertising campaigns utilize is called social norm marketing. At its simplest, it is convincing people to do something that all of their friends are doing. Use this product, and you will fit in. Wear this brand of clothing, and you will be cool. Eat Mentos, etc., ad infinitum.
There are several government initiatives that could benefit from this technique. The completely and miserably failed “war on drugs” has, as one component, television advertising. Instead of giving meanginful statistics about drug use, potential effects, and the like, we get commercials that tell us that smoking pot funds terrorism and shooting up is the equivalent of turning your brain into a fried egg. Yeah, real effective, guys.
The same tactics can be used for underage smoking and drinking — the number of people who do it is far less then the number of people we think are doing it. Same with sex, for that matter. What made me think of this originally is that I was watching Scrubs and after an, um, encounter, J.D. added a mark to his chart. He had finally reached 5. His friend Turk, the “cool” one, at one point makes a comment to his fiancé about her being his third. These seem like reasonable numbers to me for a 25 year old shortly out of college and medical school. Some people have had more action, some less. But other programs would have you believe that you can’t be cool and graduate college without having slept with at least a dozen people. And that’s just icky.
I’d bet for some people watching Scrubs, those few casual references made a difference. Made them worry just a bit less about sleeping around. And the same tactics could convince people to drink less, smoke less, and use fewer illegal substances. Of course, you’re not going to get the hardcore users in any of these groups, who you are targeting are the people who don’t necessarily have the compulsion to do this sort of thing, but are feeling pressured by the imaginary society that is being fed to them.
So US government, get a clue. If you’re going to spend so much of our tax money on these silly advertisements, at least give us something that might actually work.