"What I see is a political attack on a media campaign based on its astonishing success changing the nature of the discussion of drug abuse in America," said the retired general, who leaves as director of the White House Office of National Drug Policy on Jan. 6.
The $150 million-a-year ad campaign began in late 1997 and went national in June 1998 in a five-year program to get the messages aired in slots when they would be most effective. The campaign represented the first time the federal government tried the carrot-and-stick approach.
Media companies are paid to run an ad but are expected to provide a free ad or equivalent value in return. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America provides most of the creative, with Ogilvy & Mather, New York, buying and planning media.
Mr. McCaffrey said kids' attitudes about drug use have dramatically changed since the ads started running, though it is not clear yet whether the campaign itself is responsible. Studies are underway.
"We have the data to indicate that the communication strategy is sound; the ads are reaching the target audience; and the target audience will respond when pulsed," Mr. McCaffrey said in an interview with Advertising Age. "On the tactical level, things are working. On the macro level, adolescent attitude on drug-use behavior is changing from a disastrous increase to an unmistakable change for the better."
Mr. McCaffrey, who will teach at West Point after leaving his job, said he has carried the message about the ad program not only to the current administration, but to President-elect George W. Bush before the election in briefings authorized by President Clinton.
The ad program received strong bipartisan support when it was passed, and that support is expected to continue under President Bush; the key question is how much money will be allocated in the president's budget next fall.
Given his view of the campaign's success, Mr. McCaffrey reacts strongly to criticism, especially to Salon.com's widely quoted report that the White House secretly used the anti-drug ad money to rewrite TV scripts to include anti-drug messages, a report he characterized as "complete nonsense, poppycock" and to which Ad Age has found no evidence.
Mr. McCaffrey said people afraid to state their unpopular view that using drugs should be a personal choice instead are picking on the ad campaign.
"There are millions of moms and dads out there who listen to these ads, love them and say, `You know you are right. I absolutely shouldn't ignore my 14-year-old who has been drinking beer, smoking pot, using inhalants. I now understand it.' That threatened that [other] community, and I think they went after it," he said.
"I think this is a subtle attack on a media campaign whose broad intent is to raise social disapproval of drugs in America and is working. I think it became enormously threatening.
"How could anyone oppose shaping drug-resistant attitudes among adolescents? So they justify [opposing] it in other ways, [accusing the office of] tricking the American people by inserting Manchurian candidate messages in TV program content as if it isn't appropriate to get seat-belt wearing as part of consumer television or HIV prevention....Why shouldn't there be a health message if free media elects to use it [and it is] based on science that is operative?
"I think a lot of these attacks were part of a coordinated effort to confront the role that drugs can or should play in our society," he said.
Rep. John Mica, a Republican representing the Orlando, Fla. area, chaired a House Government Reform subcommittee hearing that in October examined Ogilvy & Mather's billings for the anti-drug office and was intensely critical (See related story P. 2).
"I think Congressman Mica has been quite aggressive in his overwatch function, which is appropriate. [But] I think he has appreciated the chance to have a visible role on television. I think his need for political attention is a factor, [and] I think Congressman Mica has sometimes been inadequately informed on the issue.... I think
the purpose of the hearings was harmful.
"This program was put together with bipartisan support out of Congress, [and the hearing] was a little bit of `got you' politics. It surprised me.... If anything, Orlando, Florida's abysmal death rate from heroin overdoses among nice middle-class kids, football players, underscores the need for anti-drug attitudes among adolescents."
Rep. Mica, reached in Italy last week, praised Mr. McCaffrey for turning around an agency that he said had been hurt by the Clinton administration, and disputed Mr. McCaffrey's complaint about the hearing. "I don't think it is justified. It was not something to make him or the program look bad. I raised some concerns," he said.
Mr. McCaffrey remains vocal in defending the ad campaign.
"When we sold this program to [federal budget makers], we said, `Do we believe our own rhetoric? Do we actually believe there are 52,000 dead a year from drugs? Do we actually believe it is a $110 billion [industry]? Do we actually believe that 85% of the people behind bars have a chronic alcohol or drug problem? If we believe this, should we view a modest investment of a couple of hundred million dollars a year in shaping youth attitudes as anything but the highest leveraged payoff in the U.S. government?'
"If we get one kid through those teen-age years that would have been a compulsive drug user, we save you, Mr. Taxpayer, $2 million. We said if this program is marginally successful, it will pay off in huge societal savings. But it is not going to be marginal. It is going to have pretty dramatic impact on youth attitudes toward drug taking."
Mr. McCaffrey said the campaign may also be having other effects.
"I believe that as you start working the drug problem, you are going to see collateral improvement on teen pregnancy rates, on a whole series of activities. If they use less drugs, a whole series of things get better."
Mr. McCaffrey said he believes the program needs to continue.
"To some extent the same message is always fresh, because every year there is a new crop of sixth- graders," he said. "It ought to continue as long as children need to have attitudes shaped to illegal drugs.... It's a $19.2 billion program we are running, with this tiny couple of hundred million dollars of advertising money-with a huge payoff."