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Anti-Drug Campaign Creative: Worth $760 Million?

  |  August 7, 2002   |  Comments

What do taxpayers get for in return for footing a very hefty ad budget? The creative's online, so Tig took a hard look.

Who's dropping three quarters of a billion dollars on a direct response campaign? It could only be the U.S. government. Flush with funds from Congress, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) is distributing two lines of creative to media outlets everywhere: one campaign targeting kids and another aimed at adults.

The ONDCP put the online creative elements on the Web for people to see and perhaps to use as public service advertising in unsold inventory.

It's a rare opportunity to evaluate creative. It isn't often an advertiser publishes its objectives. The ONDCP seeks to accomplish the following:

  • To educate and enable our country's youth to reject illegal drugs, especially marijuana and inhalants

  • To convince occasional users of these and other drugs to stop using them

  • To enhance adult perceptions of the harm associated with adolescent use of marijuana and inhalants

  • To emphasize to parents and other influential adults that their actions can make a critical difference in helping prevent youth drug use

Youth Ads

My assessment of the creative quality: mixed. The youth campaign suffers from the age-old adults-attempting-to-be-cool problem. This fake tone seldom works, and this campaign seems to be no exception.

There are creative methods to reach teens, like talking to them as if they were adults with messages that hit home. Strategies that have worked to get teens to change their behavior include shame (pimple medications) and anger, such as telling them they're suckers (anti-tobacco).

Copy for a typical add in the youth campaign reads, "Hanging out. Riding around. Going to the game. All of it. Gone. Because you smoked weed. And your parents found out."

It's been a while since I was a teen (and I didn't do drugs), but the message here seems to be, "Man, great PSA. I gotta find a better place to hide my stash."

A strain of cartoon-like banners introduces fictional characters, designed to be both cool and big into not doing drugs. Even kids understand people don't define themselves by what they do not do. People who do define themselves that way are necessarily uncool.

Parent Ads

Ads geared toward parents have a much more effective message strategy. They tell parents there's hope for their children, providing they act. The ads emphasize encouraging statistics that show talking to kids has an enormous impact on the likelihood of their using drugs.

The message is concise and hopeful and provides a clear path of action. The design is clean and features an intelligent use of headshots, portraying teens who look intelligent and convincible.

My one creative complaint is the use of fake drop-down menus. One ad states, "You can keep your kids off drugs. Get helpful advice about:" Next to these words is a drop-down menu titled, "What to say," suggesting a menu of options. Clicking on the menu forwards you to the ad's landing page. What makes the tactic inappropriate for this campaign is the youth-oriented version uses real drop-down menus.

I don't know whether to criticize the adult campaign for a sleazy tactic that trains people not to click on banner options or criticize the youth campaign for employing a tactic about which people may already have suspicions.

Do They Work?

Research bears out the creative analysis. The government's own study of pre- and postadvertising attitudes and behaviors shows parents found the advertising very helpful, but the teen ads may have backfired.

The ONDCP chose to see the glass half-full, stating in a recent release, "Phase II achieved its initial objective: to increase awareness of anti-drug messages among youth and adults at the national level." Of course it did. If you spend $760 million and awareness doesn't go up, you've accomplished something quite unprecedented.

Robert C. Hornik, a lead author of the report and professor of communication and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication, was more blunt. Speaking to Education Week of the positive response from adults, he said, "We don't see these findings with youth. Those trend lines are going in the wrong direction."

In interviews with kids, he noted, greater exposure to the campaign tended to coincide with more frequent initiation of drug use.

Government bureaucracy shuns controversy. But if the government wants to talk to teens, it needs a more effective strategy -- perhaps one like that of anti-tobacco group Truth.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tig Tillinghast

Tig Tillinghast helped start and run some of the industry's largest interactive divisions. He started out at Leo Burnett, joined J. Walter Thompson to run its interactive division out of San Francisco, and wound up building Anderson & Lembke's interactive group as well.

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