NOTE FROM PETER McWILLIAMS: This series of articles is an astonishing blow from within the advertising industry at the until-now impregnable and sacrosanct Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Brandweek is subscribed to, read, and respected by almost everyone in the advertising industry. It is the sister-publication to Adweek, the acknowledged bible of the ad industry. The harsh language and sharp criticism is remarkable and courageous. (A thank-you to the editor, David Kiley, would be appreciated. DKiely@Brandweek.com ).
But as harsh as it is, it does not compare to what my own book on "the Partnership" will bring. A quick summary:
The Same People Who Sold Us Cigarettes Are Selling Us The War on Drugs: The Advertising Industry, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and a Dark Day for American Capitalism. Madison Avenue makes billions selling us tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and pharmaceutical drugs. Marijuana in particular frightens the advertising industry. It is both a medicine and a recreational high that, if legal, would obviously compete with the far more dangerous drugs the advertising industry sells. Unlike tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and pharmaceutical drugs, however, marijuana grows readily in any windowbox and obviously needs no advertising. Marijuana, if legal, would cut deeply into alcohol-tobacco-caffeine-pharmaceutical sales, advertising would fall, and there is no indication that marijuana ads would rise to fill the revenue gaps left by the demise of Joe Camel. To protect its lucrative alcohol-tobacco-caffeine-pharmaceutical accounts, the advertising industry launched in 1987 a multibillion dollar campaign to keep marijuana illegal. They called it the Partnership for a Drug-Free Americaan impossible Utopian dream if there ever was one. Thus far, the PDFA has consumed more than $3.3 billion in public service announcements, the largest public service campaign ever, at the expense of all the other less influential charities vying for precious public service time. (The advertisers have an obvious in with the mediaafter all, advertising pays the medias bills.) Now, the advertising industry has landed the biggest sucker account in the world: the United States federal government. Drug Czar General McCaffrey has handed the PDFA $1 billion (yes, billion with a "b") in taxpayer money to buy prime-time ad space for its disinfomercials. We taxpayers are force to pay $5 each to finance the Partnership for a Drug-Free Americas cleverly worded deceptions (AKA brilliant ad copy) about, mostly, marijuana. Its a dark day for American capitalism when, in order to "stay on top," the alcohol-tobacco-caffeine-pharmaceutical advertising agencies, whose legal and heavily advertised products kill 750,000 Americans each year, must attack an herbal medicine that has killed no one in 5000 years of recorded human medicinal use and could relieve the suffering of millions. Who but the American advertising industrythe greatest mind-control experts in the history of the worldcould then turn around and make the taxpayers finance their self-serving venture for $1 billion, and then charge a15 percent ad agency commissioned rates on top of it?
The Brandweek articles, from the April 27, 1998, issue, start here:
Point: Blind Support For Anti-Drug Ads? Just Say No
By David Kiley, Senior Editor, Brandweek
"What are you going to say when you get done?" That's what one of my colleagues asked me when I told him that I wanted to look into the government-funded anti-drug marketing campaign. "I want to see if ads really do any good," I answered. "How do you ever know if ads work?" he said. Good question.
But since the government, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and self-appointed social engineers like Bill Bennett and Mario Cuomo are driving a nearly $2 billion train of anti-drug ads under the assumption that the more ads we have the better, I thought it would be a sound idea to at least cast some scrutiny upon the assumption.
Having been exposed to pro-bono, or cause-related, advertising from the standpoint of a reviewer and reporter for the last 10 years, with a two-and-a-half year stint at an ad agency, my curiosity stemmed from realizing that ad agencies seldom expend a fraction of the sweat and research over such advertising that they do for their paying clients. It also occurred to me that the so-called champions of the work, i. e. Bennett and Cuomo, neither one of which would talk to Brandweek, hadn't a clue as to how these ads were going to be created, nor how sound the research "grunt" work was behind them. As long as its anti-drug . . . Charge!
The truth is that entities like the PFDFA and the Ad Council have had to be content with what they can get from agencies and media companies. The old saw for a non-profit goes, "If I can get the same creative team that works on Pepsi from 9 to 5 to do my cause ads for breast cancer or the homeless from 5 to 6, I should say 'thank you' and shut up." Creative teams often fall over each other trying to get a pro-bono assignment, especially one with an emotional angle and any kind of production budget, because it often becomes an exercise for a show reel, the result of some hip brain-storming sessions. Research? Account planning? Media planning? We can't take money away from the paltry production budget. And it's tough to get people to donate time when agencies are operating so leanly these days. Add the absence of recognition that would go to the would-be account planner on a pro-bono effort, and getting people to chip in time is even tougher.
What the following editorial package, by Brandweek contributor Daniel Hill, and Robin Danielsen and Thomas Kouns of Mad Dogs and Englishmen, seeks to do is show how good intentions and the politics of drug policy in this country may be overwhelming attempts to create the most effective ad strategy and messages possible (strategy that may be more effective than the one Congressionally weighed and approved).
While everyone we talked to in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the PDFA, academia and at the agencies working on the ads could point to three academic reports showing that advertising works to dissuade kids from trying illicit drugs, that research, we show, hardly stands up to the slightest breeze of inquiry. In some cases, the validity of key parts of the research is even refuted by the people responsible for it.
Do we think advertising can work to raise awareness of parents to see the signs and "have the talk?" Of course. Do we think some kids are affected by anti-drug messages? Yes.
But what we also conclude is that the nearly $2 billion in planned media being committed to the cause could work a whole lot harder, and would have more credibility with the public, if the joined forces of the PDFA and the ONDCP got its ducks in a row, rather than sewing together focus groups and a quilt of surveys of dubious value, and assuming no one would look closely at the seams.
Just because a cause has almost universal support doesn't mean that short-cuts should be taken or due diligence should get short shrift.
Companies and agencies make compromises and take short cuts every day. How many marketing professionals can say they haven't worked backwards, and gone out and ordered up research to prove a point that was decided on by the marketing director, the agency creative director or the client CEO? Anyone for a New Coke? Smart companies and agencies admit to the tendency and strive to avoid the consequences. Just because anti-drug advertising is cause-related, rather than profit-centered, doesn't mean that standards can be relaxed. In fact, given what hangs in the balance--kids--standards ought to be kicked up a notch.
David Kiley is senior editor of Brandweek. He can be reached at DKiley@Brandweek.com.
By Daniel Hill
Drugs are a societal scourge that Uncle Sam is waging advertising war on with almost $1 billion from taxpayers and another billion of donated time. But how much can advertising do?
It's every brand manager or marketing director's dilemma. Ad agency account and creative directors wince and hedge when the question is asked. Will the advertising work? Will it help sell more widgets?
But what if the stakes are greater than selling a few more Ford Explorers or boxes of Tide? What if the product in question is "deterrence," as in deterring kids from trying drugs and deterring parents from taking a passive attitude about "having the talk." And what if the clients footing the bill for these anti-drug messages are now the American taxpayer and a raft of media companies being coerced into handing over hundreds of millions of dollars of free time and space?
The stakes are higher than those of household brand management. Up to now, battling drugs with ads has been chiefly a private-sector enterprise. Now, with the U.S. government putting up hundreds of millions in taxpayer money, and agencies and other vendors ready to collect 10-15% of that in commissions, the ad strategy is quickly becoming institutionalized and may well influence ad funding--both private and public--and available time and space for other causes Congress and big business deem worthy.
While most advertisers today thoroughly research their potential consumers' demographics, psychographics, wants, needs, dreams, aspirations, household habits and responsibilities, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) and the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have jointly embarked on a nearly $2 billion anti-drug campaign backed by good intentions and self-interested partisan politics, but also by flimsy research that would hardly justify launching a new stain remover, let alone a program meant to help keep children sober and alive.
At least that's what the authors of the research say.
No one casts any real doubt on the idea that anti-drug advertising can help deter use of, and especially experimentation with, illicit drugs by America's youth. What is being called into question, though, is whether the PDFA and the White House are dealing squarely with the public, media companies and corporations that they now ask to jump on the advertising bandwagon with funding and support. At issue: thin and overly-determined research that can, and has, critics claim, resulted in wrong-headed ads that preach to the choir or even insult the intelligence of the target viewer. In addition, assumptions have been made that strongly influence the messages; that, for example, zero-tolerance of any illicit substance is the only acceptable paradigm.
If there were any doubts that the current anti-drug campaign may be a model for things to come, consider these words: "You can effect any social issue," said Mike Townsend, director of operations at the PDFA. "Anything you can identify that is affected by the attitudes of the American public is subject to this kind of advertising."
Justifying the gargantuan ad effort, the PDFA formally cites three pieces of work--two can't yet be referred to as journal articles--to support their ads' efficacy and, in effect, ground their entire enterprise. One emanates from The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, one from the Stern School of Business at New York University and the third from the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.
Brandweek has learned the following regarding the three research projects:
- The lead author of the Hopkins study, Dr. Evelyn Cohen Reis, while standing behind her 1994 paper, now casts grave doubts upon the research techniques that support it. "I think [her respondents] were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear," Reis said. "You can't tell, based on the paper, that it [the advertising] actually works." She published a press-release-ready claim on the impact of anti-drug advertising: "Seventy-five-percent reported that they had decreased, stopped, or been convinced never to initiate drug use." Asked if the figure has "any validity," she said she didn't know, adding, "You can't prove it either way, whether they're just saying the 'right' thing."
- Despite years of effort, the NYU paper has not achieved publication. In fact, the lead author, Lauren Block, assistant professor of marketing at NYU, has recently withdrawn it from consideration. A fourth author, William Putsis, from the London Business School, was recently enlisted to provide further econometric support for the report. It will be resubmitted in about a year, Block said.
- The University of Michigan's Professor Lloyd Johnston, an adviser to the ONDCP, has never published his findings on the efficacy of PDFA advertising. Johnston has shared the data at professional conferences and also plans to publish in about a year.
The PDFA and ONDCP cling steadfastly to all three pieces of research, the only work the organization cites among the hundreds of academic articles extant on teens and drugs. In fact, Block's work is of particular importance since it actually analyzes the PDFA's own data from their first six years of operation. Meanwhile, Block said she has informed the PDFA that she's withdrawn her paper from publishing consideration to revamp it.
Given this trinity of ambiguity, the question arises whether the public and the media are footing the bill for a merely theoretical construct of many fine parapets and mom-and-apple-pie banners. The uncertainty, though, would not shock public health scholars. "There's no solid data that show the media campaigns create meaningful changes in behavior," said Lawrence Wallack, professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley, who met with ONDCP in March of last year.
"My fondest wish is to get these campaigns rigorously evaluated," said William DeJong, lecturer on health communications at the Harvard School of Public Health, who consulted on the ONDCP campaign.
There is "no nice controlled study that unambiguously points to the ads' effectiveness," said professor Robert Hornik of the University of Pennsylvania, another consultant to the ONDCP.
PDFA's research chief Barbara Delaney declined, when asked to comment about the validity of the research, individually or collectively.
The stakes are not only high for the enterprise itself--fighting the acknowledged, steady rise in drug use among kids--but they have also never been higher for the people fighting the fight, namely the PDFA, having won greater funding and donated media than ever before.
The anti-drug forces can thank former New York governor Mario M. Cuomo for the new money. Talking with the PDFA's chairman Jim Burke a couple of years back about the marked decline in donated time and space for PDFA's ads, the ex-governor determined that PDFA needed government funding. So he phoned President Clinton, and soon the administration's drug "czar," Barry McCaffrey, was sitting down with Burke. McCaffrey, an ex-general turned director of the ONDCP, recalled how the Army's recruiting didn't really take off until it started buying advertising rather than relying on donated time and space.
And so, bypassing Washington's normally tortured route from conception to implementation, a bipartisan $195 million was soon in the kitty for research, expenses, time and space for the first year of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Pending annual Congressional approval, there'll be similar funding for each of the next four years, nearly $1 billion of public money aimed at saving impressionable youth, though fully half the advertising will be directed at adults. What's more, the buys will get dollar-for-dollar matches of time and space from media companies, almost $1 billion more, on top of the almost $3.3 billion the media donated for PDFA ads from 1987 to 1997. Still to be counted is a projected barrage by nonmedia companies set to kick in this fall, from anti-drug messages on fast-food tray liners to trailers on home videos.
As in any advertising enterprise, there is general consensus that a raft of ads backed by tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, will raise awareness about a product, a service, a brand, a cause or candidate. But awareness does not equal purchase or even purchase intent. And before a company like General Motors or Colgate-Palmolive goes out and spends $100 million on an advertising campaign, they do massive amounts of state-of-the-art quantitative and qualitative research, producing data that determines how best to communicate to the target audience. But with the PDFA/White House effort, that data is simply gossamer.
The most glaring inherent weakness of the case is self-reporting, or drawing conclusions based on what kids say they react to and say they do, rather than measuring what they actually do and actually react to. An editorial in the April 1988 issue of The American Journal of Psychiatry, addressing a drug-use study involving 74,008 students, cast grave doubts on how definitive any such research might be: "Such size creates considerable power, even if limitations include shallowness, even some narrowness, behavioral focus, blending of different categories (use of all substances was blended into generic 'substance' use), reliance on questionnaires, and reliance on self-reporting in teenagers (in a realm where self-delusion, peer pressure, wishes to conform, wariness of adult truth-seeking, etc., are not unlikely to create systematic distortions)."
A graduate of Harvard Medical School, Dr. Evelyn Reis garnered a post-residency fellowship at Johns Hopkins. Her first and only drug-issue study, entitled "The Impact of Anti-Drug Advertising," was co-authored by her faculty mentor and two other colleagues and was published in the December 1994 issue of The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, an American Medical Association journal. In-school questionnaires were administered in the fall of 1991 to 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders in two middle schools and two high schools in greater Baltimore; one of each in the inner city and the suburbs. Not a random sample, the surveys were just given to everyone who happened to be present that day, a total of 837 students, a factor that might already confound results as drug-users tend to be truant or drop out at a higher rate than non-users.
The process was anonymous and voluntary, with teachers not involved in collecting the surveys. The survey asked about anti-drug advertising in relation to marijuana, cocaine and inhalants; questions on alcohol were included as well. Of the kids exposed to the ads, 75% reported a deterrent effect on their own behavior, the study claims. Broken down further, "71% agreed that anti-drug advertising 'convinced me never to start using drugs;' 39% 'made me stop using drugs;' and 36% 'made me use drugs less often.'" The last two findings are quite extraordinary, as the ONDCP, the PDFA and public health experts all express little confidence that advertising will have effect on regular, confirmed users.
What's more, though drugs have plagued Baltimore for years, lifetime use of marijuana, cocaine or inhalants was reported to be greater among high school students in the suburban school--35%, versus the urban high-schoolers' 29%. Throw the younger kids into the mix, and the rates fall to 23% for the suburbs and 19% for the city. Yet, Dr. Reis' paper notes, "Urban students were more likely to report having family problems with alcohol and/or other drugs. The city kids who made it to class that day reported the ads had a greater deterrent affect: 81%, compared to the suburban rate of 70%.
In the paper's discussion section, Dr. Reis remarks on the counter-intuitive findings--city versus suburb--she was publishing: "The greater positive response by the urban group in this study is particularly interesting in light of recently reported conflicting results [published elsewhere]. In a study of urban, African-American teenagers, focus group discussions revealed that, while Partnership advertisements were easily recalled, many found them offensive and preachy. Many teenagers also complained that the advertisements were the products of a mainstream source, irrelevant to their urban youth counterculture." (Emphasis added.)
"Being entirely self-reported is a huge limitation," said Reis, now an assistant professor of pediatrics at Pittsburgh's Children's Hospital, an affiliate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "I think [the kids] were telling us what they thought we wanted to hear. It's called 'socially desirable' answers. My concern is the kids thought they were supposed to say the ads work, the younger kids more so."
Despite the PDFA-cited, press-release-ready deterrent claim (75%), Reis is more dubious. "You can't tell based on the paper that [the advertising] actually works," she said.
Oddly enough, Reis' faculty mentor at Hopkins and co-author, Dr. Hoover Adger Jr., is the current deputy director of the ONDCP. "You can't get into cause and effect in any self-reported [behavior] study," Adger said. But, "there is no doubt [anti-drug] advertising works."
He could not, however, cite any research to support that contention.
Reis' caution about relying on self-reporting is well founded. Consider the work of professor John Worden of the University of Vermont College of Medicine. He administered self-reported questionnaires in his study of anti-tobacco advertising. He put cotton balls in his youthful respondents' mouths and warned them he was checking their saliva to see if they'd been smoking. Led to believe lying was futile, the kids' socially desirable answers flew out the window; he got a 30% higher self-reported smoking rate. "Kids do get truthful if they think you're going to test them somehow," said Worden.
Reis ultimately stood by her and Adger's work. "My opinion is that we know children and adults are influenced by advertising, so it makes sense that the PDFA ads work . . . Is advertising the best way to allocate resources? That's the question. If the ads are the best [program] we have, maybe they're worth a gamble."
But the question remains whether the study is enough to substantially support a vast, multi-billion-dollar communications effort or whether the PDFA just grabbed hold of any piece of corroborative research it could. "The PDFA was very anxious to get its hands on the data and wanted to get it before it was published," Reis said. "We did resist that."
The PDFA also may have jumped the gun with the Block study. "The overall pattern of results suggests that the PDFA anti-drug PSA campaign has been effective in reducing adolescent drug consumption," writes Lauren Block, assistant professor of marketing at the Stern School of Business, New York University. "However, given the nature of the available data, it is not possible to prove a causal relationship between advertising and drug consumption."
That passage comes from the second report the PDFA cites as a foundation of its anti-drug campaign, the report since withdrawn from consideration for publication.
For her paper, Block was lucky enough to get access to PDFA's own data from its first six years of operation (1987-to-1992), involving some 8,000 respondents. Most were approached in malls, a highly questionable sampling technique usually used by low-cost researchers since abandoned by the PDFA. "The generalizability of the results to the [general] population of adolescents could be considered to be questionable," Block cautions in the paper.
Block told Brandweek the PDFA data does not support an evaluation of whether anti-drug ads can cause usage or trial reductions. But given the constraints of the available data, Block retreated to examining whether the ads are "associated with a decrease in adolescents' intentions to use drugs in the future." Changes in behavior, of course, not intentions, are what really counts; or, at least, what concerns the public most.
Again, the issue of self-reporting rears its head, as does the methodology behind Block's draft and its basis on the PDFA's multi-year agglomeration of data. "With drug abuse, yes, there's a bias towards under-reporting," she said. Her report qualifies: "Since this quasi-experiment has neither a control group, nor random assignment, it is open to selection biases, history effects and other sources of error."
Another doubt arises simply from the samplings the PDFA used from 1987 to 1992. It maintained a disproportionate sample of women (55%) throughout. Since Block herself wrote, analyzing the data, "We also find that reported marijuana consumption is significantly more frequent for males than females," it raises the question of whether the PDFA stacked the numbers to bolster the appearance of its efficacy (again, emphasis added). It's also curious that the PDFA's researcher changed the sample from 81% white in 1987 gradually down to 55% white over the years 1987 to 1992, and, reciprocally, from 9% black to 28% black. It's an enormous swing in the sample to a population cross-section not representative of the nation as a whole. The PDFA's Delaney, though not at the organization when the changes in the sample were made, claims the increase in blacks and Hispanics in the sample was done to get a large enough representation to gather meaningful information on those groups. As for the 55% female sample, she contends that reflects the population at large.
Thirdly, the PDFA invokes professor Johnston of Michigan. A respected, experienced researcher in the field, Johnston's name alone confers a certain authority. His annual survey, supported by public money, is about as comprehensive as one can find. In 1996, he polled 49,000 students in 435 schools, up from around 3,000 in 1986.
Johnston has included questions about PDFA's ads in his surveys since the organization's inception in 1987, asking about recall, exposure, credibility and whether the ads made viewers regard drugs less favorably and made them less inclined to use them. But he's yet to formally publish the results, saying he's "just got more important things to do."
When he does publish, Johnston's data will indicate that the PDFA ads' deterrent effect on kids who've seen them was stable from 1987 to 1992. In that period, three-quarters of the kids surveyed said the ads had at least a little effect in deterring their drug use and one third said the ads had a lot of effect. By 1995, the three-quarters figure for a "a little" fell to 62% and the one-third figure for "a lot" fell to around 20%.
Johnston is supportive of anti-drug advertising, citing its "counter-normative" effect, and he believes the PDFA advertising to date has lowered the use of both heroin and inhalants. But "it's very difficult to measure the effect of the ads, drugs are such a feature of the culture," he said.
He cautions, though, about "the fallacy of single causes. Advertising is only one, and not the strongest influence."
A steady decline in drug use from 1979 through 1992 was due, in part, to the cocaine-related death of basketball star Len Bias in 1986 and in part from the pervasive puritan ethic that seemed to characterize the Reagan-Bush years. That's no longer the case, Johnston said, which goes a long way towards explaining the increase in drug use of the 1990s. In constant dollars, federal funding for school-based drug education fell by 40% in the early '90s. There was a 93% drop in national network news stories on drugs from 1989 to 1993. Fewer celebrities died. And popular music and fashion, Johnston claims, exploded with pro-drug messages.
There was "a decline in role models [dying from drug use] and less vicarious learning," Johnston said. "Society was speaking with a single negative voice about drugs in the late '80s. I'd like to see a ubiquitous campaign, the voice of society [regain that tenor]."
Dr. Reis' doubts over the validity of her paper, and professor Block's retreat, even if temporary, leave only one leg of PDFA's self-designated three-legged stool in place. But, unpublished, it's currently a leg cobbled from claims made in Professor Johnston's conference presentations, i.e., speeches. Is that enough to set the course for a "voice of society"?
The ONDCP strategy involves a three phase effort; the first, having begun in January and still running, is a 12-city test of $20 million in paid anti-drug ads, during which the office is evaluating its tactics based on focus groups, phone interviews and community feedback. That said, one high-ranking executive involved in the program terms it superficial at best. Phase Two expands the campaign nationally, with $65 million in paid ads starting in May or June. Phase Three, which starts in the fall, allocates $93 million in paid integrated media.
The integrated media plan, as with any brand image push these days, is to get the money "to look bigger" than what the paid and donated media time adds up to, this through high-impact media, sports and entertainment events and "non-traditional" media such as video trailers, video-store handouts, mall arcades and even basketball backboards. The idea is to create an "effective, continuous presence" for the messages, said Michael Marks, senior vice president of Creative Media, N.Y.
"We have to keep hammering the message home, just like the Nike swoosh," said Judy Cushing, president of National Family Partnership, Portland, Ore., an organization of concerned parents.
For Phase 1, being implemented by Porter Novelli, Washington, ads encompass five strategic themes, based on study of academic papers, data and other research material supplied by the PDFA, as well as on two two-day conferences of ad people, physicians and public health experts:
1. Instill belief that drug use is not common; that kids overestimate the prevalence of use. Debunk the myth that everyone is doing it to keep kids from trying in the first place. ["Four out of five kids don't smoke pot."]
2. Enhance negative social consequences of use. [Girl storming out of pothead ex-boyfriend's room.]
3. The positive aspects of being drug-free. [Rad skateboarder in action.]
4. Enhance the variety of personal and social skills. Yes, refusal skills, but also future-oriented skills needed to have a bright future. [I need to graduate, I need to have fun, I need a job, I need to be a kid.]
5. Positive use of time. [Girl winning first-place in a gymnastics meet.]
Are they on target?
"This is your brain on drugs" is the best recalled anti-drug ad in the history of the genre; a new ad has extended that equity, showing a woman in a kitchen holding up an egg, "This is your brain," and smashing the egg with a frying pan, "This is your brain on heroin." She then ransacks the rest of the room with the cast-iron pan to show the devastation that heroin wreaks on home, career and family. Another ad shows a middle-aged mother feeding someone, presumably a baby, oatmeal by spoon. The payoff is that she's actually feeding her teenage son whose brain has been fried by inhaling household chemicals.
While ad agencies' good intentions are as true as any other partner in the mix, most are also too taxed to put the same level of rigorous research and account planning into a PDFA ad that they might for a paying client. If they do read the research, chances are it's supplied by the PDFA. Most agencies, in fact, view the experience as merely a creative exercise in the name of good citizenry. But a lack of the checks and balances proper research can provide may lead to work that, while creative, can hinder the desired effect.
A 1996 ad by agency Hampel Stefanides, N.Y., used a young woman's account of her and her boyfriend's heroin addiction. Parents to an infant, he succumbed to an overdose, and the young mother called for help. She quite credibly says she lost custody of her baby and wails, "I'm not allowed to see her." Problem is, the scene runs counter to social work theory and practice in just about any U.S. jurisdiction. Addicted parents are encouraged, even required, to visit their children in foster care; failure to do so is a good way to permanently lose custody. Hampel Stefanides creative director Dean Stefanides said the story line was deliberately "fuzzy," so as to protect any real addicts' identity.
"No one knows what's made up or not," Stefanides said. "If it's incorrect, it's all done to have kids stay off drugs. Maybe there should be more research."
He referred other questions to the ad's director, Bobby Sheehan of Pure Film. "I don't make documentaries," Sheehan said. "I make film stories. The intention is not to deceive, but hopefully to make a dramatic point."
Which might be fine, except that the hyperbole seems to be taking on a life of its own. In a recent Newsday op-ed item, Steven Donziger, policy director of the Partnership for Responsible Drug Information, recalled one PDFA newspaper ad that claimed "20% of all children have tried an inhalant by the eighth grade." First, Donziger quotes a 1996 U.S. Health and Human Services survey that only 5.9% of children aged 12-17 had ever tried an inhalant. Second, he states, the "everybody's-doing-it" tagline "virtually invite[s] children to try inhalants."
Another critic, Kendra Wright of Falls Church Va.-based Family Watch, a network of organizations concerned about drug policy, said one ad she saw in the Washington test area worries her. "My 15-year-old step-son had no idea that you could get high on household cleaners until he saw the ad warning against their use."
One anti-heroin ad, according to critics, may have simply compounded problems for one of the campaign's target markets. The TV spot features a teenage boy decrying the drug's destruction of his life, from unemployment to homelessness to what's presented as the extreme degradation: " . . . and now I have sex with men for money to support my drug habit." This stirred the ire of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), which called the ad "patently homophobic." GLAAD maintained the ad used "homosexuality as a scare tactic" and potentially "exacerbate[d] higher-than-average risks gay and lesbian youth face for substance abuse and suicide by implying that being gay is worse than being addicted to heroin." Once the
civil rights watchdog group started whipping up a protest campaign, PDFA agreed to excise the offending portions of the commercial.
Finally, the most famous PDFA mistake involved the brain wave supposedly of a pot smoker. It turned out the flat line was either that of a coma patient, or the monitor just wasn't hooked up to anyone. Accounts differ. Either way, these sorts of misguided efforts undercut the PDFA's effectiveness.
"Like most pro bono groups, the PDFA won't do disaster checks on rough cuts or the finished ads," said Harvard's DeJong. He feels the PDFA needs more input from behavioral scientists who know how to translate public health theory into messages that produce behavioral change. "But the PDFA is resistant, they want to restrict it to advertising folks," he said.
Vermont's Worden agrees. A behavioral scientist might better gauge if an ad is too abstract for a particular age. One ad in particular, which shows a good-looking boy on a skateboard head across his comfy suburb to share a joint with a friend, would've been flagged by a good public health maven, Worden said. "That's just too much modeling of the activity in too attractive a way," he said.
PDFA's creative chief Doria Steedman said focus group testing of finished ads is now being done, and retorts that her organization gets all the advice it can from everyone it can. "It's not done by two guys sitting around a room," she said.
Another big area of credibility with the youth audience is the program's focus on marijuana as a gateway drug to more serious abuse, long a puritan mantra but hardly an established fact. Public health experts, including Dr. Johnston's research, say that approximately 18% of youth who try marijuana go on to more serious drugs.
"Pot is hardest [of drugs to depict] because it's so accepted, so normalized," said the ONDCP senior advisor Alan Levitt. "It's given a wink and a nod in society. Kids see ballplayers getting caught smoking marijuana and not suffering any real consequences. We need to depict that four out of five don't use it."
Still, the basic consideration of how many kids start substance abuse with alcohol, especially beer and tobacco, before they get near their first joint, raises a huge issue: Whether a zero-tolerance position is tenable, when ad dollars might be spent on warnings against more addictive, more lethal drugs, and especially when the communication of a zero-tolerance message comes off as wantonly puritanical in the viewer's eyes, poisoning the well for the entire campaign (see accompanying story, page 29). A report sponsored by the Ford Foundation debunks educational efforts "emphasizing the horrors of addiction and lumping all drugs together as leading to the same ultimate doom. Virtually all experts now agree that such tactics have not proved effective. Indeed, in many cases, they have been counterproductive, causing disrespect, skepticism and resistance to all advice on drugs."
The PDFA and ONDCP are on a mission to, as Professor Johnston phrases it, get the country speaking in one voice in the fight against drugs. The words and images that copywriters and strategists use are crucial in the process. Even ONDCP director McCaffrey has conceded, despite his Army background, that we need to stop calling the fight "A War on Drugs," as if it could be won like a methodical military campaign. In fact, in his recent PBS documentary, Addiction, Bill Moyers took McCaffrey's lead and compared the "war" on drugs to the quagmire of Vietnam.
Though it undoubtedly took a lot of manhours to create the mammoth advertising program to come, it has not been hard to generate the necessary backing for the cause. Who, after all, could be against keeping more children from damaging themselves with drugs? It is in such a consensus-filled rose garden, though, that short-cuts can be taken and dissenting opinions quashed.
Why, for example, aren't beer, liquor and tobacco included in the PDFA's and ONDCP's mandate, when, historically, youth are curious about and start out on those substances before they try marijuana or are tempted by their first mushrooms. Add to that the hundreds of millions of dollars a year spent by advertisers of those products to reach kids, and it's hard to justify their exclusion. But then, this is where the moral high-road runs smack into the rocky cliff of political pragmatism.
"To include them [tobacco and alcohol], the program wouldn't have gotten through Congress," said the ONDCP's Levitt. "Plus, with the amount of money we have to spend, it would have dissipated our message. It's not in our mandate."
By not including them, for whatever reason, the effectiveness of the campaign may be weakened. But it only further blurs a picture already made fuzzy by a dearth of sound research and, thus, the most basic "account supervision." This anti-drug effort may well be the model for other public causes co-funded by the public and private sectors, and it could prove a poor precedent.
But marketing, if even better conceived and implemented, is obviously no panacea. It starts with family and a kid's environment, and those issues are less of the Wonder World of commercial culture than of the fabric of society. "Prevention experts say we must acknowledge why people are drawn to mind-altering substances," said Harvard's DeJong. "It flies in the face of their experience to not talk about this."
"What works is parents," said drug counselor Mary Dailey, student assistance coordinator at New Trier High School in Wimmetka, Ill. "Fear of parental disapproval, parents talking repeatedly and imposing consequences. Parents need to monitor their kids and wait up for them to come home. They need to know who their friends are, and their friends' parents. And most of all, they need to be role models themselves."
In the end, the question of whether or not ads work to deter drug use seems an unwieldy one to answer despite the certainty expressed--if not proved--by the PDFA and ONDCP. Doubters like Berkeley's Wallack claim the campaign thus far does little more than raise awareness of the issue of drug use. "They take a complex, multi-causal problem and reduce it to a matter of the wrong decisions, without going into causes," he said.
Of course, one might argue that such rhetorical reduction is what advertising does. And some might argue back, that might be the first impetus for more scrutiny of this expensive crusade.
Daniel Hill is a New York-based freelancer who writes on social policy issues.
MONEY: Desperately Seeking Solutions
April 27, 1998
Outside the home, kids say they are most affected by the grim "realities" of drug use in music videos and films like Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. And they can tell when anti-drug messages are "ordered up" in the media.
The value of a focus group is only as great as the people running it and interpreting the responses. Because the Partnership for a Drug Free America and the Office of National Drug Control Policy are relying in great part on focus groups, Brandweek asked Mad Dogs and Englishmen, an untraditional New York ad agency with a demonstrated ability to reach the youth market and a culture centered on account planning disciplines, to conduct a series of focus groups with the kids targeted by anti-drug marketing messages. The objective was to see what kids have to say about using drugs the ads try to dissuade them from using, whether they do or don't indulge, and why.
The moderator of the groups was Thomas Kouns, and the observations and insights that follow were written by Kouns and agency president Robin Danielson. Note that qualitative research can deliver insight and directional guidance, but does not provide projectionable, empirical results. Especially in this instance, in which all respondents were New Yorkers, caution should be used when generalizing about results.
WHO WE TALKED TO
Mad Dogs convened five focus groups. Three were non-users: males, ages 8-12; females, ages 12-16; and males, ages 12-16. Two of the groups were of current users: males, ages 12-16; females, ages 12-16. The groups were recruited off the street in New York City. Subjects were a racial mix of black, white and Latino and came from upper, middle and lower income households. Reported drug use among users was marijuana, mushrooms and LSD, with the exception of one female user, who had used crack. The majority of users said most of their usage was confined to marijuana.
- Whether we want to admit it or not, our children are growing up faster and we need to treat them as such if we expect to get their attention.
- In this sample, kids accept being "scared straight," and expect to be informed and treated as the sophisticated consumers that they are.
- Many of the ads directed at kids are metaphorical, intended, it appears, as much or more for a creative director's show reel as they are for the target audience.
- Kids know drug use is dangerous, and bad for them, but bristle at the notion that marijuana is the root of evil that ads and political rhetoric make it out to be.
THE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Is anti-drug advertising effective? Not surprisingly, the answer is both yes and no, so let's look deeper.
Yes. Advertising provides an internal and somewhat unconscious "stop light" that serves as a reminder of the pitfalls of drug use. Kids seem to have been exposed to so much anti-drug advertising and other proselytizing that the overall message that "drugs are a bad thing" has been ingrained into their psyches. As a result, most exhibit a guilt reaction when they're in a position to "break the rule." This was even true of the "users," many of whom had been offered, and turned down, hard drugs. Respondents learned of the negative aspects of drugs from many sources, but advertising was the most consistent reminder in their lives. Advertising also played a larger role for kids whose parents hadn't given them "the talk."
How kids learn negatives of drug use:
- Movies (Trainspotting, Basketball Diaries, Pulp Fiction, Kids)
- TV shows (Family Matters, Fresh Prince, Jenny Jones, Jerry Springer, HBO Drug Special, Blossom)
- Music videos (TLC's Waterfalls)
- Family members who had drug problems.
- School (teachers, health class and guidance counselors)
- Physician, psychiatrist
What's the most effective medium?
Respondents claimed movies and TV shows were more effective in getting across the harsh realities of drug use than advertisements. They felt that longer format programming could tell an involved story that captures them emotionally.
"I saw the movie Trainspotting and it had a real effect on me."--white, male, user, 15.
"They should put some of the advertising money toward shows that have an anti-drug message."--white, male, non-user, 16.
Advertising is an effective educational tool for reaching younger kids (8-12) with the message of basic dangers of drug use. Many kids couldn't remember where they had learned the effects of both hard and soft drugs except from informative commercials. Surprisingly, ads dealing with the ill effects of cigarette smoking seemed to be among the most effective in curbing drug use among non-users. For many kids, these ads brought home the effects that smoking/drugs can have on the lungs and rest of the body. This message was especially effective among young athletes who saw any type of drug use as a potential impairment to their athletic performance.
"If you use drugs, you are stupid."--white, male, user, 14.
"That just shows they don't care about their life."--Hispanic, male, user, 16.
No. Most anti-drug communication is spent on anti-marijuana messages and images, which most kids seem to simply laugh at or ignore. Most respondents felt marijuana should be legalized, regardless of whether or not they used it. Remember, this is a generation who has seen prominent political figures admit to their usage, and many come from homes where their parents used marijuana. National political movements are trying to get the drug legalized. Movies with titles like Half-Baked and the timeless Cheech and Chong series are hugely popular. And there is a wealth of information pronouncing that marijuana is more like echinacea than a drug. Both users and non-users said there were too many messages focused on marijuana, and that money should be spent focusing on harder drugs.
"It [pot] should be legalized."--black, female, non-user, 14.
"They try to make it out to be worse than it is."--white, male, user, 14.
"Those in charge will tell you anything to get you not to try [pot]."--white, male, user, 15.
In a few instances we found that kids are so angry with what they felt to be patronizing/dishonest messages that it's fueled their "teenage angst" and promoted further usage or caused them to tune out all anti-drug communication. Teenagers are the most cynical of all demographic targets and anti-marijuana advertising plays into that cynicism.
"What they're doing is wrong because they're not showing the truth of [pot]. They say if you do this, you'll end up on the street like a bum. All they're looking for is excuses for us to stop. Now, everyone thinks those ads are fake, so kids just go out and do it."--Hispanic, male, user, 15.
Much of the advertising lacks the necessary realism to capture kids' attention. Kids are suspicious of drug advertising that doesn't feel like it could happen in real life. This audience is very distrustful of traditional TV formats--Dateline, 60 Minutes, local news, documentaries--and are big fans of reality shows like Cops, True Stories of the Highway Patrol, HBO Undercover. They seek out and respond to the stories of real people who have battled with drugs and their consequences. Many felt that advertising often tells them that drugs are bad but doesn't explain why. They are interested in "real" information, and want to be spoken to, not at.
"When I see what really happens . . . that gets my attention."--black, female, user, 16.
BOTTOM LINE OF YES AND NO ANSWER
Advertising has been helpful in reinforcing/educating kids about the dangers of drugs and has had a strong effect on particular targets. However, the perception that most anti-drug advertising is "unrealistic" (focused too much on unrealistically demonizing marijuana, not informative or explicit enough, "fake" seeming) increases cynicism and reduces the effectiveness of anti-drug ads overall.
Reasons Kids Use Drugs:
1. Peer pressure
2. Numb the pain (The Buzz.)
4. Nothing better in their lives to do
5. Way to get closer to people
"Everyone blames it on peer pressure, but it really is."--white, female, user, 14.
INCREASING EFFECTIVENESS OF ANTI-DRUG ADVERTISING.
- Greater focus on hard drugs (cocaine, crack, heroine) and less on anti-marijuana messages. The kids we interviewed are all scared of hard drugs and told us that focusing on these drugs with reality-based images would be more credible to them.
- Greater realism in ads. Part of the reason movies and videos that deal with drug-related imagery are seen as such an effective drug deterrent is because they explicitly show the horror and pain that can come with drug use. Today's kids can handle seeing these depictions and take it as a personal affront when they are given the "soft-core" version. Sadly, most of today's ads aren't provocative enough to capture the attention of this increasingly sophisticated audience. Scare tactics would be useful. Most of the kids we spoke with said that making them scared would be a good way of getting the point across. Remember, this generation flooded the theaters to see Scream and Scream 2.
"I think you have to scare the shit out of people. Like in Pulp Fiction when [Uma Thurman] overdosed [snorting heroine that she thought was cocaine]."--white, male, user, 14.
"We see a lot of commercials, but I have to see something personal for it to have an effect on me."--black, female, non-user, 16.
- Develop a media schedule for the under-12 campaign that ensures little overlap with the 12-and-over audience. The problem occurs when a 14-year-old sees a commercial meant for an 8-year-old feels insulted and patronized. As a result, they tune out anti-drug advertising and are more likely to rebel against a message that's intended to curb usage.
- Develop the Partnership For A Drug Free America brand in order to repair its credibility among kids. This thereby gains trust instead of skepticism. Positioning the Partnership away from "big government" might be a helpful, albeit a doubtful, step.
- Continued use of niche commercials that make use of public figures and athletic scenarios which resonate with select groups, i.e. blacks, student-athletes.
- Less reliance on the 30-second ad. This communication genre cries out for out-of-the-box thinking. Music videos have such an impact that working with popular groups on truly artistic videos with a message may get more bang than a 30-second ad filmed by an ad agency.
Rather than the "establishment" going to athletes, music groups, music labels and publishers to ask for "anti-drug stories," simply show them what the impact is when they do it on their own. Kids will know when a message is "ordered up."
- Increase anti-smoking (tobacco) advertising, which is an effective drug deterrent for some non-users. Non-users are affected by the health and addiction messages which turn them off to other inhaled and addictive substances.
"It works. They show pictures of lungs."--white, male, user, 15.
"My favorite ads are Camel's."--white, female, non-user, 14.
- Having phone numbers accompany each ad for users to call and get treatment and or counseling was a frequent suggestion as a way to make the advertising more actionable among users.
to Brandweek is as follows:
Your more-than-courageous analysis of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America was long overdue. For more than a decade, this dubious organization has run its skull-and-crossbones up the flagpole and the entire advertising industry has saluted--at attention, with honor guard and cannon fire.
Not since the darkest days of McCarthyism have thousands of brilliant creative minds marched in lockstep behind such an un-American notion. "The Partnership has access to the entire advertising industry," the PDFA crowed for years. "This means it has a nearly limitless supply of the best creative ideas in the country!" Not one chicken in the ad coop raised a peep in protest. Until now.
Thank you, Brandweek, for finally saying, "The emperor wears no clothes."
The PDFA will no doubt respond with indignation, intimidation, and deception. Those are the only tools it has ever had. With them, it has extorted pro bono ads from agencies and commandeered half the public service spots for the past eleven years--$3.3 billion worth--at the expense of all the other less-influential charities vying for precious public service time.
My view, however, as an author who has been researching the PDFA for years, is that Brandweek was too kind in its criticism, and that it did not sound the alarm bell within the advertising industry loud enough. You omitted any mention of the dark motivation--real or perceived--behind the entire PDFA juggernaut. Consider, for a moment, what thinking Americans will conclude from the following facts:
A year ago, The New York Times pointed out this obvious conflict of interests. The PDFAs response? It merely removed the term "advertising industry" from its literature. The PDFA is now "a private, non-profit, non-partisan coalition of professionals from the communications industry." Right. This superficial sleight-of-hand is but a Band-Aid on a festering tumor that threatens not just the PDFA, but the entire advertising industry as well. Whether genuine or merely perceived (and any advertiser will tell you there is hardly a difference between the two), the advertising industry is in for some heavy questioning about its motivation behind spending billion slamming marijuana while making billions promoting tobacco.
Thus far, the rage against Big Tobaccos decades of deceptive promotional practices--the cause of tens of millions of premature American deaths--has fallen on the shoulders of Big Tobacco. Rightly so. Next in line, however, will be the agencies that packaged that deadly deception so well and so profitably for so long. Before the press and public are through, Madison Avenue will be cratered with criticism. There will doubtless be lawsuits, especially considering the federal governments plan put a cap on Big Tobaccos litigation payouts. The deep pockets of the Marlboro Man's pimp will be awfully attractive.
Can the advertising industry afford the secondary criticism that it protected the sales of deadly tobacco by deceiving Americans about a relatively harmless smokeable plant that also brings "Satisfaction!" and "Pleasure!" and far more safely? I dont think so, but then Im only a nonfiction book writer.
My forthcoming tome on this subject is entitled The Same People Who Sold Us Cigarettes Are Selling Us the War on Drugs: The Advertising Industry, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and a Dark Day for American Capitalism. The jacket-copy reads, in part, "Its a dark day for American capitalism when, in order to stay on top, the alcohol-tobacco-caffeine-pharmaceutical advertising agencies, whose legal and heavily advertised products kill more than 600,000 Americans each year, must attack an herbal medicine that has killed no one in 5000 years of recorded human use and could, in fact, help relieve the suffering of millions."
I will soon be sending out a questionnaire to the top-100 ad agencies in the country, asking each to place on the record its view of and contribution to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The results--including which agencies failed to respond--will be published in the book. As I am a notorious media whore, and as my books have appeared on the New York Times Bestseller List five times, I like to think my effort will at least be noticed.
I welcome comments from individuals in the advertising industry--either pro or con, on or off the record--for inclusion in the book.
However harsh my published criticism of specific advertising agencies and individuals may be, Brandweek will be portrayed as Paul Revere, riding courageously down Madison Avenue, sounding the alarm to those wise enough to hear. Continue to question PDFA "facts" and point out its fallacies. It is a message, and a discussion, long overdue. Believe it or not, the advertising industry will one day thank you for it.