In Congress: White House drug office in feud over failed ad campaign

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A report showing the failure of U.S. anti-drug ads aimed at kids now could lead to a major row in Congress over who should control the country's massive anti-drug advertising effort.

The report, from a consultant to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, found that government anti-drug ads aimed at adults do work but suggested that problems with the kids' ads may need additional study.

Even so, the Partnership for A Drug-Free America and the White House drug office last week blamed each other. The Partnership oversees the creation of the drug-office ads, which are done pro bono by various agencies; media is purchased by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather, New York, although that business is up for review.

Congressional staffers said the Partnership and the drug office will square off as soon as next month, when Congress looks to reauthorize the ad program, supported with $600 million in tax money over the past four years.

The drug office wants "to box out" the Partnership, one congressional staffer familiar with the fight said last week, in describing statements made to the The Wall Street Journal by John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy criticizing past advertising.

U.S. Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, co-chair of the House speaker's anti-drug task force, in a statement last week suggested the campaign may have "lost its way" not because of creative but because the drug office has spent too little on advertising. "We know the media campaign was initially effective, but may have lost its way as its focus shifted away from ad buys" to promotion and research.

In an interview, Mr. Walters denied wanting to lessen the Partnership's involvement and said he just wants to improve the ads. He said he feels getting the drug office more involved during the Partnership's creative process will improve results.

"I'm disappointed," he said of the study, which showed the kids' ads may even have had negative effects. "We have to fix it. I believe that advertising can be an important tool in fighting drugs and that we can make it effective. We have to retain the confidence of the public."

Drug office officials said one of the problems in the past has been that because it is the Partnership that produces creative briefs and talks to agencies, ads sometimes got produced that weren't tailored to goals and later need to be changed. At one point last year, nearly a year's worth of planned strategies had to be altered because the ads didn't come in on time, an ad agency dropped out or ads tested badly.

some results

The ads that have produced the best results are the anti-terrorism ads Ogilvy produced outside the Partnership structure (AdAge.com QwikFIND aan12d). "The reason they were so effective is we were involved on almost a daily basis back and forth with creatives," said Alan Levitt, director of the drug office ad program.

Partnership officials said the problem wasn't the ads or the creative process. They said the strategy, lack of spending on individual messages and the bureaucratic approval procedures hampered creative development during the two years of ads the report examined. Instead of relying on the Partnership's expertise in determining what works, the drug office developed its own strategy, ignored the Partnership's warnings and requested ads that didn't work as well, Partnership officials said.

"It's a Byzantine process to develop the ads that takes 39 weeks, and then there is not enough media weight and they are not getting the right messages, because they are asking for highly nuanced message strategy," said Partnership President-CEO Steve Pasierb. He said that because the drug office wants to test the ads for two months before they air, the entire process can actually take over a year.

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