Get back to the point

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In the current debate regarding the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, one thing seems to have been forgotten: the kids and the parents the campaign was intended to serve. They don't need politics as usual or finger pointing. They need-and deserve-practical solutions.

There's no question the campaign has lost its teeth. In its first two years, advertising professionals were given the freedom to craft insightful strategies that produced breakthrough communications. They developed research-based messages that their experience, expertise and a decade-long track record of success predicted would work. The federal government, seeing real value and power in the work of those professionals, brought the money needed to give anti-drug messages the ability to run in places where their target audiences were most likely to see them.

During this time the campaign worked brilliantly: Anti-drug ads were everywhere, the percentage of teens seeing or hearing anti-drug messages every day jumped by 41%, anti-drug attitudes among teens improved and, most importantly, drug use among teens declined.

But the progress stalled when the campaign staff at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy started tinkering with the system and began re-allocating media dollars to non-media activities. The result was a campaign with too many soft themes, too little media weight to support the few strong messages and a focus on kids who were too young.

So, what do we do now? We focus, streamline and get back to what worked. If we want a campaign to show evidence that it's reducing drug use among a target audience, then let's aim at a group actually using drugs. We need to focus on kids older than the 11-to-13-year-olds current campaign mandates have forced the messages to address.

a return to basics

A basic advertising tenet holds that a single, consumer-focused strategy delivering hard-hitting messages consistently over time trumps a series of splintered messages based primarily on a theoretical construct. Let's get back to the type of hard-hitting ads that professionals created for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America for more than a decade-ads focusing on perceptions of risk, social disapproval and real negative effects of drug use.

Independent research has shown these types of ads have the most leverage with kids, so we need to make sure those ads run consistently. Spending less money to place ads in a time when media inflation has driven up the cost of placing them-precisely what the campaign staff at Office of National Drug Control Policy has been doing in recent years-is no way to ensure messages are delivered consistently.

Since new campaigns have to be created rapidly to meet new challenges, a more streamlined creative development process is needed. Not long ago, the many top advertising agencies that volunteered their time and talent to create messages for anti-drug campaigns faced an eight-step development process designed to assure accuracy even as it demanded creative excellence. Today, the development process has expanded to include executional mandates and has mushroomed to a size, scope and length unheard of in the commercial marketplace.

When the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign began, everyone involved focused on what they did best. The premise, the one a bipartisan Congress bought into in the first place, called for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to harness the brightest minds in advertising to provide strategic counsel and creative content for the campaign for free. The Partnership brings together a wide array of fierce advertising competitors to work together toward a common goal. The campaign needed the government to provide the money to make sure the ads ran consistently in prime media. When those things happened, the results were impressive.

Some have asked if it is possible to fix the campaign. It is, because we already know what works. Research has shown, time and again, that anti-drug ads can and do work. It works when advertising professionals are given the freedom to do what they do best for the consumer, and when the messages they create are delivered with weight consistently over time.

For more than 15 years, industry professionals volunteering for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America have created anti-drug campaigns that made a real difference. Research has proven their value and, thanks in part to their efforts, overall regular drug use in America is down roughly 40% since 1985, and regular use of cocaine is down nearly 80%. The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was designed to build on this success. In its first two years, it did exactly that.

The campaign was off to a successful, focused start. The staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy changed it. Now it has stalled. It's time to get back to focusing on what has been proven to work.

Steve Pasierb is president-CEO, Partnership for a Drug-Free America, New York.

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