Alcohol & Pop Culture Ep 4 – Why D.A.R.E. Failed and How We Can Help
By Lauren Brande, M.A. | Published 6/5/17
LAUREN BRANDE: We’re on the final episode of a four-part series on the interaction between alcohol and pop culture. In this episode we will take a look at what aspects contribute to the success of an alcohol abuse prevention program as well as day-to-day efforts that can help counteract the effects of mass media and pop culture on drinking habits.
Hello and welcome to Let’s Talk Drugs, a podcast discussing the ins and outs of substance abuse. Let’s Talk Drugs is presented by ProjectKnow.com (that’s project k-n-o-w dot com), a website dedicated to providing accurate, easy-to-understand information about drugs to adolescents and their families. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse, call us at to speak with a recovery support specialist about getting the help you need.
Current Prevention Efforts [0:54]
LAUREN BRANDE: The fact is that alcohol is a drug, and it happens to be legal (and easily accessible). As such, it is heavily regulated, commercialized, and morally debated. Problematic drinking is a prevalent risk around the world, with use rates by adults and adolescents barely fluctuating over the past couple decades (9, 102).
Prevention efforts have persisted across time as a product of religious, governmental, and, well, parental endeavor. They’ve had both promising and disheartening results, which means there’s still a lot of development needed.
The most notorious drinking reduction effort has to be Prohibition. In January 1920, Congress placed a total ban on the manufacturing, transportation, and sale of alcohol in the United States, based largely on Protestant and anti-immigrant influence (103). This ban resulted in a flourishing underground market of speakeasies and bootleggers, home distillation, expansive growth of organized crime, and NASCAR (you read that right). This booze ban only lasted 14 years, coming to an underwhelming (but celebrated) conclusion at the end of 1933 (103).
Fun Facts about Prohibition: [2:08]
- During Prohibition, bootleggers would get away with their alcohol dealing by creating souped-up cars that could book it in a police chase all while holding loads of booze. They would race these supercars on weekends, eventually becoming what we now know as the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) (103).
- The phrase “the real McCoy” comes from the name of a famous rumrunner, William McCoy, who was well-known for the quality of the booze that he smuggled into the U.S.
- Women played a major role in the initiation of Prohibition with the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) as well as its conclusion with the Women’s Organization for National Prohibition Reform.
- Repeal Day, when Prohibition laws ended, is celebrated on December 5th, also known as “Cinco de Drinko”.
50 years later, 1983 saw the beginning of what would become one of the most widely recognized substance abuse prevention failures: The D.A.R.E. program. This program, started by the Los Angeles Police Department, had police officers come in to classrooms to teach kids about the dangers of drug use (104). You’ve probably heard their famous slogan: “Just say no,” which encompasses all that went wrong with early prevention efforts.
D.A.R.E.’s major downfall was assuming that education alone would curb substance use by teens. The program pushed what they thought would be simple refusal techniques by providing sensationalistic information on substance abuse to kids. Instead, this approach proved ineffective and potentially detrimental, as it may have helped normalize the use of “lesser” substances like alcohol and marijuana (105).
Merely educating people about what happens in the extremes of alcohol abuse doesn’t do much to help prevent use or abuse (106). Many current prevention programs focus so heavily on spreading information about alcohol and other substances that they forget to look at the evidence: this model simply doesn’t work (106).
“D.A.R.E.’s major downfall was assuming that education alone would curb substance use by teens. “
Even basic advertising restrictions don’t seem to be very effective at reducing unhealthy drinking habits. In fact, the minor fluctuations that have been seen in alcohol purchasing seem to be more closely related to alcohol-specific tax changes, income level changes, and general population demographic variations (60). Simply limiting alcohol advertising may not be enough to reduce alcohol abuse.
So a complete ban on alcohol is clearly ineffective, even leading to elevated rates of crime; the educational prevention approach doesn’t seem to work on its own, comparatively normalizing alcohol use in the process; and basic advertising bans might not curb the high rates of drinking… what can we do ?
Alcohol abuse can seem impossible to escape, but help is always available and recovery is always possible. Call us at to talk about recovery options with one of our treatment support advisors to start your own journey today.
Effective Prevention Strategies [5:02]
LAUREN BRANDE: Effective alcohol abuse prevention programs must take many pieces into account, including contributing influences like popular culture and peer perceptions, mediating factors like environment and exposure, and the inescapable social factor of drinking and peer interaction.
Mass media campaigns are a widely used medium for alcohol prevention efforts. Because they’re marketed to such a wide audience, these campaigns can help expose people of all ages to the realities behind extreme drinking. In the U.S., we call them “public service announcements,” or PSAs, and they usually have the goal of reducing harm related to substance abuse.
But, again, these noble efforts are facing the same problem that education programs do: knowledge doesn’t necessarily change behavior. While some studies have found these massive prevention campaigns to be effective (107, 108), the majority of research suggests that mass media is not the optimal venue for inciting change, at least not as they have been largely implemented so far (109, 110).
Some of the most effective strategies go beyond just teaching knowledge and awareness. They are interactive—meaning they get the kids to actually discuss, critically think, and act out scenarios—and community-based, meaning the program engages all area residents rather than simply talking to kids at school (105). Mass media campaigns alone are not as effective as these interactive community programs, despite their extensive reach (106), but can serve a supportive role in the effectiveness of these programs (106).
In fact, the most successful prevention efforts are seen in programs targeting early adolescence that teach alcohol refusal skills, how to analyze and set norms, and development of personal and social skills (111). These programs are especially effective when “booster interventions” are implemented to refresh the message and reinforce the refusal practice (111).
Refusal skills, self-esteem enhancement, and social development are also effective strategies used in therapy for adults to help treat alcohol abuse problems (112). When a person learns how they can be influenced as well as how to resist those influences, they are better prepared to resist and positively cope with temptations.
Designing an Effective Alcohol Prevention Program [7:18]
LAUREN BRANDE: In order to design an effective alcohol abuse prevention program, all aspects of abuse must be considered. One study conducted a comprehensive review of substance use prevention programs, both successful and not as successful, and came up with a list of seven criteria that may help a program thrive (113):
- Make sure the action plan actually works! Many substance prevention programs implement approaches that have no effects on actual drinking habits, so ensuring that the program strategy has scientific evidence to back it up can drastically improve its impact.
- Keep the message interactive. Peer interaction and communication training for people, especially adolescents, allows them to practice safe ways to deal with drinking pressure or opportunities. This type of practice, rather than just listening to someone tell them to “just say no” encourages the development of drug refusal skills to help them get comfortable with turning down a drink.
- Implement the “social influence model”. Help prepare adolescents for the social pressures that surround alcohol. Programs that use this approach are the most effective at preventing substance use.
- Combat norms and foster commitment and intention. In line with the social influence model, make sure that perceived drinking norms are accurate, as many people unknowingly inflate their peers’ drinking. Remind adolescents that they are likely to misperceive how much their peers actually drink. Encourage commitment to not drink and the intention to turn down alcohol, which can set healthier personal and social norms.
- Integrate community and school-based approaches. Community interventions can improve the strength and impact of school-based programs. Mass media campaigns can further support these efforts if they are designed and incorporated effectively.
- Use peer leaders. This aspect can help in many different ways. Not only does peer guidance help to re-establish norms, it encourages a non-drinking social network and may feel less like a lecture and more like a discussion among friends. Encouraging peer leadership in the program has been shown to boost short-term effectiveness.
- Include training in life skills and self-esteem development. Feeling more confident and comfortable may help buffer people against the social pressure to drink.
Successful Prevention Efforts [9:49]
LAUREN BRANDE: One organization that has been particularly successful with the implementation and effectiveness of these criteria is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD is a nation-wide nonprofit dedicated to the reduction of alcohol-related vehicular incidents. Since their official beginning in 1980, the number of drunk driving incidents has gone down by almost half (114).
MADD uses almost all of these criteria in order to affect the change they hope to see (115):
- They utilize massive media campaigns to foster awareness of the problem and their organization. These campaigns support their evidence-based community efforts that are often organized by victims of drunk driving (peers). MADD also uses their community influence to affect laws and litigation.
- They use statistics and youth/community programs to challenge the perceived drinking and driving norms, highlighting the extreme consequences of such a decision and offering alternatives such as sober rides on major drinking holidays.
- They emphasize commitment with a pledge to never drink and drive. This pledge is all over their website, always ready for a new person to commit to safe driving practices.
- They encourage the participation of victims to better communicate the message.
MADD is just one example of a substance abuse prevention organization that has been very successful, but you don’t have to run a nonprofit to make a difference. In addition to nationwide efforts, people can help mitigate the alcoholic influence of popular culture in their day-to-day lives.
Day-to-Day Prevention Tips [11:21]
LAUREN BRANDE: The effect of social media advertising by alcohol companies can be mediated or enhanced by other factors such as the viewer’s personality, extent of internet use, and friends’ and family members’ decisions whether or not to drink (73).
- Resist posting photos and videos of drinking, try not to drink in front of kids and adolescents, and limit online time to a certain amount every day.
The effect of film portrayals of drinking can be affected by expectations surrounding drinking, prototypes of people who drink, and friends’ alcohol use (92).
- Make sure to discuss the more negative consequences of drinking and what happens to people who engage in problematic drinking behaviors, especially with adolescents.
Television’s influence functions as a product of how drinking is presented- positively or negatively. The extent that viewers identify with drinking characters and drinking situations may play a big role in how people end up feeling about alcohol after watching (116).
- Opt for shows that either don’t feature heavy/frequent drinking or ones that feature drinking in an unrelatable or negative way.
Most songs that reference alcohol or drinking portray positive social, sexual, financial, or emotional benefits (85), and references to particular brands have been associated with binge drinking (72).
- Try to limit adolescents’ exposure to alcohol-referencing music. Offer alternatives that don’t mention brand names or glamourize alcohol.
The biggest culprit of them all is advertising. How can we combat the widespread influence of alcohol advertising on people’s drinking habits, especially adolescents? Instinct might tell us to ban all alcohol advertising, which is where most worldwide efforts have migrated in the past (117, 118), but actual alcohol sales in the U.S. haven’t changed with the increasing marketing budgets (60).
Instead of taking a retroactive approach to alcohol abuse prevention by trying to limit exposure, we need to accept the fact that adolescents will be exposed to alcohol at some point in various ways. Prevention education must start preparing young adults for the strategies employed by alcohol advertising in order to buffer them against its effects.
Teaching about alcohol advertising strategies early on can have long-standing results: younger viewers who learn about advertising strategies have less positive expectations regarding drinking and are less likely to select an alcohol-related product (119). Raising knowledge of alcohol-specific advertising strategies by discussing the persuasive tactics employed, critiquing the realism of the content, and examining the ways that advertising tries to create camaraderie in order to manipulate viewers can help diminish the effect of advertising on drinking habits.
“Instead of taking a retroactive approach to alcohol abuse prevention by trying to limit exposure, we need to accept the fact that adolescents will be exposed to alcohol at some point in various ways.
Of course every exposure intervention must be age-appropriate, as kids 10 or younger are going to have a different understanding than, say, a 16-year-old. Regardless of the age of the child, intervention early-on is a must.
The adolescent brain is in a constant state of intense development- our brain isn’t mature until we’re in our mid-twenties, and even then it continues to develop (120)! Prevention of adolescent drinking is a vital part of reducing the longstanding harm that alcohol can cause. The earlier we combat these warped perceptions of drinking norms and acceptability, the better prepared society will be to prevent widespread abuse.
Concluding Thoughts [14:43]
LAUREN BRANDE: Pop culture’s propagation of alcohol consumption doesn’t have to define societal norms. The relationship between pop culture and society has influence flowing both ways, and the harder we work to establish safe drinking norms now, the better off society will be.
The fact is that alcohol is one of the most dangerous drugs when it is abused, and it is legal. No matter how harmful it has been proven to be, some people are going to drink. Alcohol’s presence in media and advertising are only a few of many factors that influence unhealthy drinking perceptions and habits.
There is no clear-cut solution, but there are many ways to address and prevent problematic drinking behaviors. Nationwide programs and campaigns help foster awareness and spread vital information, especially in schools. There is a piece of this puzzle for every individual to adopt, and it’s up to us to create the shift toward healthier drinking habits. ■
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