If someone wants to hear the opposite of what you’ve got to say, it’s hard to tell them anything. I learned this when I worked as a government communications consultant. My job was to assess how good government advertising campaigns were.
Typically, you do this is by conducting a survey after the campaign has finished, and comparing it with a survey you did before the campaign started. Some things are pretty easy to work out using this method. For example, how many people remember seeing the ad? Also, what they thought the main message was, whether they thought it was relevant to them and whether they thought it was believable.
It’s much harder to tell whether the campaign actually did what it was meant to - for example, did people who saw an ad about speeding start to slow down? The only way to get close is to compare the behaviours of people from two different areas, one where the ad was shown and another where it was not.
In practice that's almost never done, making it impossible to tell whether a campaign has had the desired effect. But that’s the last thing that government bureaucrats want to hear. They don’t want to hear it because they know exactly what their Minister wants: a good news story.
Announcing round two of the federal Government's ‘Ice destroys lives’ campaign, Health Minister Fiona Nash said that ‘51 per cent of at-risk youth who had seen the ads said they would now avoid using ice – a fantastic result.’ (This statistic was cherry-picked from deep in the August 2015 campaign evaluation report from Stancombe Research and Planning, accessible here.)
Whether or not intention to avoid using ice will actually translate into lower rates of ice use is an open question. As we all know, intentions and actual behaviours are different things. But putting that aside, the Minister has implied that the campaign has changed the minds of a whole group people, to the effect that they are now going to avoid using ice. There is no evidence to support that claim.
Even a minister looking to spin a good news story has got nothing on a news organisation looking for a splashy headline. For the Herald Sun, for example, the story became 'Federal Government’s ice advertisements turn half our at risk kids off the drug'
This is laughable, in a dark sort of a way. In the latest National Drug Strategy Household Survey in 2013, more than 85% of Australians in their 20s and 95% of Australian teenagers said they have never used ice. If after seeing this campaign, 50% were intending to use ice, we would have a real epidemic on our hands. In reality, the number of ice users is about a tenth of that, and there is no evidence the campaign has made any difference.
For Nash, “this new independent data makes a mockery of Labor’s decision to discontinue the ice advertising campaign in 2009. The use of ice doubled between 2010 and 2013.” But between 2010 and 2013, the proportion of people using amphetamines didn't change. What happened is that a lot of people who regularly used amphetamines switched from the powder to the crystal form. That's has got nothing to do with advertising, and everything to do with the illicit drug industry's increased capability to deliver high-purity products to the market. That's a reality that this campaign will do nothing to change.