Let vanity drive ads in anti-drug campaign

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Advertiser: Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Agency: Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York
Ad Review rating: No rating

Dear President Clinton: Congratulations on your plan to put $1.75 billion worth of anti-drug advertising in the media over the next five years, including $875 million in federal funds. Maybe the so-called war on drugs isn't just a lot of saber-rattling after all.

You needn't be reminded, of course, that $875 million is a great deal of money. (You'd have to put a $10,000 donor in the Lincoln Bedroom every night of the year for 239 years, not even counting what it costs to restock the mini-bar.) So leave us not squander the war chest.

For instance, any ad that equates drug use with death--unless it happens to be a famous celebrity's death--is pretty much a mistake from the get-go. This has to do with human psychology and the "not me" response.

For whatever reason, people regard premature death as something that happens exclusively to others. Waving the grim reaper in front of them is therefore a pointless exercise.

In dealing with teen-agers, in fact, it's worse than a pointless exercise; often enough, it's a come-on. It suggests danger, adventure, thrills. If the fact that adult society is telling them to "Just say no" isn't enough of an enticement, the romantic notion of cheating death can make drug use even more seductive to the hormone-addled adolescent.

Indeed, if reaching kids is the primary goal, then you may as well throw out any idea of appealing to reason. While many of our fine young people are very bright--such as the two you trotted out as examples of academic achievement in your State of the Union address--that does not mean they are necessarily rational beings. What children understand intellectually does not always moderate their behavior.

So take a deep breath, Mr. President (sorry, you're going to have to inhale), and face reality: What we have to appeal to is something that transcends reason, that transcends morality, transcends even mortality.

The place to attack: vanity.

If you think of kids not as nearly ripened potential Democrats but as unstable bundles of self-consciousness, you'll immediately understand how drugs = death is meaningless but drugs = ugly is terrifying. Think about it. Even your State of the Union whiz kids were chosen not because they were inspiringly brilliant, but because they were inspiringly brilliant and gorgeous.

The template, therefore, is the current anti-heroin campaign from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which at long last depicts the ravages of addiction in terms of how horrible the users look.

One shows a guy, huddled on his filthy bathroom floor, retching over the commode. Another shows a fashion model, stripped of her cosmetics and false teeth, looking like 20 miles of bad road.

And then there's Lenny, the emaciated loser in the cheap New York room who shows off his needle tracks to director Tony Kaye in a spot produced by Cliff Freeman & Partners, New York.

"That pus was just coming out of the little hole here," he says. "I threw up, man, my guts . . . " Then he challenges the camera crew to return in a year, "and I'll be a totally different person. I'll be successful. And I'll bet my life on it."

And you couldn't go wrong, Mr. President, taking a piece of that action. You couldn't go wrong socking all $875 million into something like The Lenny Channel--all Lenny, all the time.

Don't say "say no." Just say Lenny.

Copyright February 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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