Can Opioid Use Disorder Be Avoided With Help of Clever Ad Campaigns?

The Opioid Crisis - Truth Initiative

What will it take to staunch the opioid epidemic currently gripping American communities? While no one would argue that single stand-alone interventions will work, a growing number of people are putting a lot of hope into riveting new advertisements that intend to break the stigma of opioid dependency – and showcase the harsh reality behind it.

But while this million-dollar, Emmy-winning ad campaign may be laudable, we’re not yet convinced it’s enough to make a meaningful impact and truly help people avoid the scourge of addiction. Keep reading to find out why.

The Case for a Campaign: Why Experts Exalt Harsh Anti-Opioid Ads

In a recent New York Times op-ed, readers were asked to imagine what would happen if advertising companies launched an anti-opioid campaign mimicking a wildly successful anti-tobacco campaign that’s now over two decades old.

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The latter, famously known as the Truth campaign, was launched in the 1990s and largely credited for helping to cut the rates of teen smoking in U.S. states like Florida by nearly 18 percent in just two years. While the author of the op-ed concedes that it was more than just the ads that helped to decrease the prevalence of smoking among teens – citing other major and even cultural changes like rising taxes on tobacco products and widespread bans on indoor smoking—she does endorse the ads as “crucial.” Many other health experts agree.

Enter The Truth About Opioids, the next iteration of hard-hitting imagery and no-nonsense advertisements aimed at a young audience with the hopes of keeping them off prescription and illicit opioids including heroin and fentanyl. These ads show shocking (and, marketers hope, relatable) images of young people detoxing from prescription opioids and purposefully injuring themselves in order to procure a new opioid prescription, among other things.

To say “shock and awe” or “scared straight” is a goal of these ads wouldn’t be too far off the mark. One series of ads features a fictionalized account of a young man getting underneath a parked car and kicking out the jack so that the car falls on him. Far from suicidal, his behavior is an attempt to get a prescription for painkillers from a physician. Another ad follows a young woman going through real opioid withdrawal.

The reason so many people hold high hopes for these difficult-to-watch advertisements is that they touch on something that the popular anti-tobacco campaign so effectively capitalized on all those years ago: that teens and young adults may not be as scared of future ailments (say, lung cancer in your sixties) as much as they’re scared of more immediate consequences, like wasted money, wrinkly skin, rotten teeth, and—especially in the case of opioids—unexpected addiction, traumatic withdrawals, and accidental overdose.

Savvy marketing pros and public health officials seem to exalt the powerful anti-drug message as an effective weapon against the opioid epidemic. But as Tina Rosenburg, the author of the NYT op-ed admits herself, it’s still “too soon to know if these ads reduce youth opioid misuse.”

To be frank, we have not convinced it ever will.

Going Beyond the Ad Campaigns: Helping the People Behind Opioid Dependency

Here’s the reality: teens and young adults are smart. They don’t need to be spoken to like little kids, and when given the chance they are often able to integrate truthful messages and difficult realities without the need for sugar-coating and hand-holding.

Young people also have their own perspectives, preferences, and needs that will influence the types of mass messaging they’ll respond to. This is often in a way that is different from adults. Any ad campaign designed by people who understand how to deeply engage with youth audiences certainly has the potential to make an impact.

But will that impact be enough to actually make a practical difference by reducing the rates of opioid use and opioid use disorder? We’re doubtful, though it’s not because we question the intention of The Truth About Opioids campaigners. Instead, we share many others’ expert opinions that raising awareness about something as life-altering as opioid dependency does not inherently scale to addiction prevention. Awareness, while certainly good and likely necessary, is simply not sufficient to foster meaningful change.

Why? In our view, it’s a matter of shifting the front-end focus.

Consider that both anti-drug ads and conventional opioid use disorder treatment programs overwhelmingly focus on the consequences of dependency, as well as ways to manage these consequences (rather than ways to prevent them). What isn’t more readily explored and highlighted are the causes of dependency. These causes or factors are often the underlying, highly personal issues faced by individuals, many of whom are already at-risk for dependency in the first place.

As we’ve said before, opioids have a tremendous ability for masking emotional distress, including the long-lasting, psychological, biological, and neurochemical effects of trauma, depression, and anxiety. These are the factors which very often tip people who are environmentally and/or genetically predisposed to addictive behaviors over the edge into full-blown dependency. It is astounding how quickly this can happen and how no demographic is spared of the dangers of opioids…which goes to show how no demographic is spared of the emotional costs of living in our high-stress, modern world life with conflict in all its realms.

What we mean to say is that opioid use disorder should not be seen as some “abnormal” disease process but rather a coping strategy—albeit an ineffective and hard-to-control one—that people often use in response to their underlying mental and emotional health challenges.

In this view, the remedy for opioid use goes far beyond shock-and-awe videos. Our nation is hurting for proper funding and government support of mental and behavioral health programs that can assist individuals and provide them with the necessary healing and skills to recover and reclaim their autonomy, productivity, purpose, and joy in their lives. Were these programs to receive more funding and even more societal support, we would see fewer opioids and other drug addiction cases nationwide.

It is far time we remove our blinders surrounding this issue. The link between substance use disorder and mental illness is well-corroborated by evidence. It’s known that drug use is often an ill-advised attempt to self-medicate and mitigate mental and emotional problems. It follows, then, that tackling substance use disorders without at the same time or even preferentially tackling mental health disorders is simply bound to fall short.


Deterring our younger generations against opioids – and the risk of a subsequent opioid use disorder is no doubt an important step in the charge against America’s opioid epidemic. But showing young audiences the sobering realities of chemical dependency is likely not enough to help them avoid the dire consequences of opioid misuse.

At the Waismann Method® Opioid Treatment Center, our goal is to bridge the gap between the behavioral reality of opioid use dependency and the emotional, mental, and spiritual underbellies of addiction. Thanks to our effective medically assisted drug detox and rapid detox services, our patients are able to quickly and safely get opioids out of their system, so they are better prepared, physically and mentally, to do the real work of recovery: individualized mental health counseling and healing.

To learn more about rapid drug detox and other medically assisted alcohol and drug detox treatment options, contact Waismann Method® staff today at (800) 423-2482.