To meet their aim of reducing the acceptability of psychoactive substances to young people, the designers of drug prevention programmes need to have a thorough understanding of the personal views already held by their audience with respect to the object of attitude and behavioural change. However, few studies involving younger adolescents have collated participant-generated impressions of a range of legal and illegal substances. The present study used a word association methodology to explore adolescents' impressions of cigarette smoking, drinking alcohol and taking a range of illegal drugs. In total 3571 images were generated which were placed into 24 categories on the basis of content analysis. The predominance of negative imagery was of note, particularly for cigarette smoking and drug taking and there was little evidence of a simplistic generic attitude to substance use. Images of alcohol especially alcopops, were markedly more positive and were much less likely to contain reference to specific health problems than the images of cigarette smoking. However, there was less differentiation between 'hard' and 'soft' illegal drugs than has been found with older adolescents in other studies and many of the images relating to illegal drugs were poorly defined, revealing vague notions of danger and risk. The present methodology is proposed as a useful tool for assessing attitudes both prior to and following prevention programmes and it is suggested, based on the wide variation in images elicited, that successful prevention dialogues with young people may need to vary their message according to the particular substance targeted.