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NIDA. (1995, August 1). Novel Drug Abuse Prevention Ads Get Strong Response from High-Sensation Seekers. Retrieved from

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August 01, 1995
Robert Mathias

A strong, biologically based need for stimulation appears to make sensation-seeking young adults more vulnerable to drug abuse. Now a NIDA-funded study has shown that highly novel drug abuse prevention messages can capture the attention of high-sensation-seeking young adults and get them to consider participating in alternatives to drug abuse.

The ultimate goal of the drug abuse prevention media campaign is to reduce drug and alcohol use among sensation-seeking young people. "If we can reduce the number of sensation seekers who go into the drug abuse pipeline, we will have significantly reduced the number [of young adults who are at risk] for both drug abuse and AIDS," says study director Dr. Lewis Donohew of the NIDA-funded University of Kentucky Prevention Research Center.

ThrillseekersThis booklet, "A Thrillseeker's Guide to the Bluegrass" was given to high-sensation seeking young people who called a hotline in response to highly novel antidrug ads. The booklet describes activities ranging from bungee jumping to playing computer and video games that researchers think could substitute for drug use among high-sensation seekers.

High-sensation-seeking teenagers and young adults are much more likely to use drugs earlier and more often than their peers who have less need for new and exciting experiences, studies show. However, many traditional drug abuse prevention messages that stress the dangers of drug use don't get through to these young people because high-sensation seekers have different perceptions of risk, says Dr. Donohew. "Ads using scare tactics may actually enhance the attractiveness of drug use for high-sensation seekers," he says.

The media campaign developed by Dr. Donohew and his colleagues Dr. Philip Palmgreen and Dr. Elizabeth Lorch, also of the University of Kentucky, tried a different tack. The campaign attempted to get the attention of high-sensation seekers by using highly novel drug abuse prevention messages that offered exciting activities as alternatives to drug use. In a sense, "we offered high-sensation seekers stimulus substitutes for the high they were looking for [from drugs]," says Dr. Donohew. It was quite plausible that this stimulus-substitution approach would work because basic research conducted earlier by Dr. Michael Bardo, a colleague at the University of Kentucky, had shown that novelty seeking and drugs of abuse stimulate essentially the same brain reward pathway in rats, says Dr. Donohew. (See "Novelty Seekers and Drug Abusers Tap Same Brain Reward System, Animal Studies Show")

"Offering activities that could substitute for the drug-use experience is key with high-sensation seekers," says Dr. Ro Nemeth-Coslett of NIDA's Division of Epidemiology and Prevention Research. Traditionally, drug abuse prevention programs do not offer an alternative to drugs that is going to provide this group of individuals with the novelty they really want, she says.

Working with focus groups of young adults who had scored at the high end of a standard sensation-seeking scale, the researchers developed a series of antidrug television ads that contained stimulating characteristics designed to appeal to their target audience. One ad with high-sensation value, called "Wasted," showed shocking metaphors for common terms used by drug users, such as "fried, "wasted," and "blasted." For example, the word Fried appeared on the screen backed by heavy metal music. Then, the words, "With drugs you can get...Fried," appeared, followed by black-and-white newsreel footage of a Vietnamese monk setting himself on fire and burning to death. Similar shocking metaphors were portrayed for the other terms. Then, the words, "Without drugs you can still get...high," appeared, followed by color scenes of exciting, high-sensation alternatives to drug use, such as hang-gliding or rock climbing. The closing scene showed a toll-free hotline phone number that viewers could call to get a booklet called "A Thrillseeker's Guide to the Bluegrass." This booklet describes activities, ranging from bungee jumping to playing computer and video games, that are available locally.

The campaign aired the ads over a 5-month period in the Lexington, Kentucky, area during 1992. The ads were shown during television programs that high-sensation seekers had previously indicated that they preferred to watch. To determine the impact of the ads among the general population, the researchers conducted random surveys of 16- to 25-year-olds during the campaign. To ascertain if the ads reached the target population, the researchers surveyed 18- to 25-year-olds who called the hotline.

The random surveys revealed that 16- to 25-year-olds who scored in the upper 40 percent of a standard sensation-seeking scale were more likely to recall the campaign ads than other antidrug ads. Those in the lower 40 percent of the scale were more likely to recall other antidrug ads.

The survey of hotline callers provided even stronger evidence that the ads had reached the target population. Most of the hotline callers were in the target age range of 18 to 25, almost all of them participated in the survey, and 73 percent of them were high-sensation seekers. In addition, 32 percent of those surveyed said they had used illicit drugs within the past 30 days. By comparison, only 23 percent of young people in the general population said they had used illicit drugs in the 30 days before they were surveyed.

The study is just beginning to analyze initial followup data to determine the campaign's effect on hotline respondents' subsequent drug and alcohol use. However, a preliminary analysis of 12-month followup data is showing dramatic differences in behavior between the general survey group and hotline respondents, Dr. Donohew says. Whereas drug and alcohol use increased among both high- and low-sensation seekers in the random survey group, drug and alcohol use actually decreased among high-sensation seekers and remained basically unchanged among low-sensation seekers in the hotline group, Dr. Donohew says.

"I think we have shown that you can reach high-sensation seekers, but introducing novelty into a message is far more of a stretch than most people realize," says

Dr. Donohew. For high-sensation seekers, "novelty means real novelty. This means going out somewhere beyond MTV in terms of being different," he says. To identify truly uncommon ways to reach this population and to produce effective messages and place them properly, developers of prevention messages should assemble focus groups of high-sensation seekers and ask them what they like and what programs they watch, Dr. Donohew suggests.


  • Donohew, L.; Palmgreen, P.; and Lorch, E.P. Attention, need for sensation, and health communication campaigns. American Behavioral Scientist (38)2:310-322, 1994.
  • Palmgreen, P.; Lorch, E.P.; Donohew, L.; Harrington, N.G.; Dsilva, M.; and Helm, D. Reaching at-risk populations in a mass media drug abuse prevention campaign: Sensation seeking as a targeting variable. Drugs and Society, in press.