VIEWPOINT;AD BIZ NEEDS TO REINVIGORATE ONCE-STRONG ANTI-DRUG MESSAGE

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There's no greater evidence that advertising works-and works extraordinarily well-than the anti-drug ads run in the early 1990s by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

In 1985 there were more than 22 million regular users of illegal drugs. By 1992 the number of users had declined by more than 10 million. In the same period media contributed $1.5 billion in anti-drug messages, peaking in 1991 with media support of $365 million-$1 million a day.

That's the good news. The bad news is that since 1991 media support for the partnership's ads has declined every year, and in 1996 is projected to be off about $100 million from the '91 peak.

And, predictably, drug usage is again escalating. This month's release of the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse said illegal drug use among 12-to-17-year-olds has more than doubled since 1992, after the years of decline. Is it coincidence that drug usage started going up when anti-drug advertising started going down? I don't think so.

Jim Burke, who used to run Johnson & Johnson and who now serves as the chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, calls the coalition "one of the country's best- kept secrets." I agree, because in all the media coverage of the big increase in drug use, very little was said about the partnership's work, or about the correlation between the rise of drugs among the young and the decline of anti-drug ads.

The partnership ads proved that traditional marketing methods can be used to reduce demand for a product by changing attitude and behavior patterns. But in spite of their overwhelming success, the media "lost a little bit of interest" in running the ads, which had "stayed high for so long," says Tom Hedrick, vice chairman of the partnership.

Also, there was "an awful lot of competition," with all sorts of disparate causes contending that their issue was as important as the anti-drug message. And, the networks' effort to eliminate non-programming "clutter" led to fewer public service announcements.

So the upshot was that "less anti-drug information coupled with more glamorizing pro-drug information have eroded anti-drug attitudes and caused usage to go up," Mr. Burke says. Most kids think it's normal for rock musicians to use drugs, and Mr. Burke believes "we desperately need the music industry to organize around a major initiative to deglamorize drug use for our youth."

Richard Bonnette, president and CEO of the partnership, pointed out that Federal Communication Commission's recent approval of a regulation requiring three hours of educational programming a week could be a boon for anti-drug ads. The regulation allows broadcasters the option of using public service announcements aimed at kids to meet part of their obligation.

What the partnership is seeking is a restoration of the $1 million-a-day spending level on anti-drug ads, thereby reducing the users-again-by 50% by 2000. "If I'm right that this problem can be solved" by the ad industry's concerted efforts "and we don't respond to the challenge, I am not sure our children and grandchildren will ever be able to find it in their hearts to forgive us-and I am not at all sure that they should," Mr. Burke contended.

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