Anti-drug messages should send ethnic adults distinct culture cues

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The task sounded easy: Create culturally diverse advertising to send anti-drug messages to kids, but create a single message for parents, delivered in appropriate language.

Three years into the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy effort, it appears the opposite approach would be more effective. Parents have said they need separate culturally appropriate messages, while kids-regardless of ethnicity-respond well to messages featuring African-American celebrities.

That's the conclusion reached by WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, and its partner minority agencies working on the anti-drug advertising. With spending of $145 million a year on the anti-drug ads and $185 million overall on the program, Congress wanted assurances the ads would work, so it required extensive evaluation of the marketing efforts. The anti-drug office insisted the ads be tested not only on the general population, but also on ethnic children and parents, and significant panels of individual minority groups.


A Partnership for Drug-Free America spot featuring Venus and Serena Williams and originally intended to reach African-American kids turns out to test as one of the strongest spots among that audience as well as white, Hispanic and Asian kids.

Generalized messages about parenting and what parents should do about drugs appear preachy to African-American parents. Similarly, such spots provide insufficient information to Hispanic parents about what to say to their children and raise cultural taboos about family for Asian-American parents.

"Our assumption was that parents would be more alike but kids were different and would react differently to different messages," said Gary Pinheiro, group planning director at Ogilvy. "We learned parents of different ethnic groups have very different approaches to raising kids. We have come to realize [those differences] are steeped in culture. If you do a `one size fits all,' there is a lot of pushing back."

"When you are talking about Asian parents, pride is important. People want to be proud of their children. They react much more to the suggestion that there are problems in the family or community," said Thanh Nguyen, VP-media director for partner agency Admerasia, New York.

Language can be a barrier. Mr. Pinheiro said Ogilvy learned from Asian-American parents that some Asian languages do not have a term for "inhalants." "People couldn't believe it," he said of the parents' reaction to the use of inhalants. "We have to educate them to signs of symptoms and teach them the terminology."

Sam Chisholm, CEO of Ogilvy partner agency Chisholm-Mingo Group, New York, said kid-targeted commercials featuring African-American celebrities consistently perform better against a general audience of children than those created for a general audience.

"Kids are trendsetters, and for much of that they look to what is African-American," he said.


Ernest Bromley, CEO of another partner agency, Bromley Communications, San Antonio, Texas, said "There is a redefinition of the urban market with [urban youth] truly being the role models for all ethnic people." Mr. Bromley's agency is 49% owned by Bcom3 Group.

Barbara Delaney, research director at the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, said the findings are supported by research.

"It was a fairly big surprise," she said. "Parenting is a lot different, and one size doesn't fit all. We have always known that kids aren't isolated from each other, but what we found is how much African-American role models really resonate with all kids."

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