Media Effects Research Lab - Research Archive

Social cognition and anti-drug psa effects on adolescent attitudes

Student Researcher(s)

Carson B Wagner (Masters Candidate)

Faculty Supervisor

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar


Wagner, C. B., & Sundar, S. S. (1999, May). The curiosity arousing function of anti-drug PSAs. Paper presented to the Health Communication Division at the 49th annual conference of the International Communication Association (ICA), San Francisco.

A summary of this study was presented at a Subcommittee Hearing in the U.S. House of Representatives. Click here to download our Statement at the hearing.


The recently formed alliance between the U.S. government and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) has placed the PDFA's advertising budget among the top fifteen currently running ad campaigns in the country. Past research has shown that anti-drug Public Service Announcements (PSAs) such as those distributed by the PDFA reach eighty-three percent of adolescents, increase anti-drug attitudes, and have a ninety-percent recall rate, yet tracking studies show that adolescent drug use has increased since 1991. Examined together the evidence is certainly puzzling, because if most adolescents have seen and can recall anti-drug PSAs and if PSAs normally increase anti-drug attitudes, then usage rates should be declining. However, this is not the case. These contradictory facts shed light on the need for new directions in anti-drug PSA research, and inspired the current research. In other words, perhaps by looking beyond traditionally studied anti-drug attitudes to cognitive responses such as curiosity which might provoke adolescents to experiment with drugs, we might begin to explain this ironic relationship.


Two media-related phenomena, perception of social norms and curiosity, were examined to determine the relationship between these cognitive responses and exposure to anti-drug PSAs. Based on priming theory and information-gap perspective, the following hypotheses were generated:

H1: Subjects who view anti-drug PSAs will estimate the prevalence of adolescent drug use to be greater than control group subjects.

H2: Subjects shown anti-drug PSAs will be more curious about illicit drugs than subjects in the control condition.

H3: For all subjects, estimates of adolescent drug use prevalence will predict level of curiosity.


Sixty-five participants took part in a between-participants experiment involving two conditions. Participants in the control condition saw an unaltered version of a prime-time television program (The Simpsons). Participants in the treatment condition saw the same program but with four PDFA anti-drug PSAs edited into the commercial breaks. Following exposure, participants in both conditions filled out an identical questionnaire eliciting, among other things, their level of curiosity and perceptions of the prevalence of drug use among their peers


H1: Partially Supported. Treatment participants estimated a significantly higher percentage of high school students to have used marijuana at least once in the past year and at least once in the past month as compared to control participants.

H2: Supported. Treatment participants were significantly more curious about using marijuana as compared to control participants.

H3: Not supported. For all participants, neither estimates of the percentage of high school students who have used marijuana in the last year nor estimates for the percentage of users in the last month predicted curiosity.


The results of the study showed that those programs that contained anti-drug PSAs had higher estimates of illicit drug use by peers and higher curiosity toward illicit drug use. The results of this study indicate that the mere mention of the topic in anti-drug PSAs inherently works to increase estimations of societal prevalence. This suggests the existence of a paradoxical relationship between mass mediated messages and viewers' perceptions of illicit drug use. Perhaps, such messages can promote abstinence more effectively by providing examples of alternative activities, rather than merely mentioning what one should refrain from.

For more details regarding the study contact

Dr. S. Shyam Sundar by e-mail at or by telephone at (814) 865-2173

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