WHY PSA CAUSES FALTER

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Mindful of the stakes in volved, we're all hoping the frank new AIDS-prevention campaign from the federal government's Centers for Disease Control is a big success. What a triumph if it does at least as well as another vitally urgent mobilization, the advertising industry's own Partnership for a Drug-Free America campaign.

And that's the rub. As has happened with the Partnership's historic work, it will be hard for the Centers for Disease Control campaign to get the sustained exposure it needs if it's to have more than a temporary impact.

Media will carry the AIDS spots because they're fresh and newsy, then get bored, and all too soon set them aside so they can pick up on the next "hot" public service campaign.

But steady commitment to a powerful campaign pays off.

In the Jan. 17 Newsweek, Jonathan Alter calls the Partnership's public service ad campaign "one of the great untold success stories of recent years.|.|." He notes that, between 1985 and 1992, "the number of Americans who regularly used drugs declined 50%, from 23 million to 11.4 million. Drug use among blacks is down 58%.

"Many factors contributed to the decline," Mr. Alter writes, but the Partnership's "huge coordinated media campaign on the use of illegal drugs .|.|. clearly made a huge difference, not so much for the roughly 6 million hard-core drug users as for young recreational users influenced by definitions of what's cool."

Mr. Alter properly reminds us that the challenge is to sustain the success, because "when the campaign becomes old news, the bad numbers inch up again."

At the moment, with the Clinton administration easing up in the war against illegal drug traffickers, media are prone to choose other PSAs. Right now, it's AIDS prevention. And next year?

Too bad we in the media haven't figured out ways to help fight more than one war at a time. Society's ills and evils don't march in single file.M

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