Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational pot. Philip
Seymour Hoffman's apparent overdose has sparked yet another
national conversation about heroin. And a club drug called Molly is
perpetually in the headlines.
Drugs are everywhere. But where are all the anti-drug ads?
Public service announcements are still running. But viewers
aren't being bombarded with them like they once were. After peaking
at a rate of some $1 million in media time a day in the late 1980s,
anti-drug campaign airtime has been on a steady decline. The
reasons range from government cutbacks to competition from a range
of causes such as fighting cancer and curbing texting while
Advertising's role in the war on drugs has been heavily
scrutinized and criticized over the years, but recent studies
suggest that some messages might be getting through, at least to a
certain percentage of teenagers. Yet, with the government getting
out of the anti-drug ad business, future success will depend on the
generosity of media companies and ad agencies as the nation's
largest teen-targeted campaign shifts to a private model.
Today, far fewer teens are seeing anti-drug ads: Only 32% of 8th
graders reported weekly exposure to anti-drug ads last year,
compared with 76% in 2003, according to the University of
Michigan's Monitoring the Future study, a long-running survey
funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Source: University of Michigan Monitoring the Future Study
The decline stems mostly from a move by Congress to eliminate
the media budget for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
The office had been funding anti-drug ads aimed at teens since
1998, including a 2002 Super Bowl ad that linked drugs to
terrorism, and boasted a media budget of $100 million as recently
as 2007. But the government program was constantly under assault by
critics who said it was ineffective, and the effort endured a
series of budget cuts before it was altogether axed from the 2012
To the rescue
Stepping into the void is the Partnership at Drugfree.org, a
nonprofit best known for the 1980s-era "This is your brain on
drugs" frying-egg ad. The 28-year-old group, formerly known as the
Partnership for a Drug-Free America, had previously overseen the
creative process for the government-funded program. It also has
long run other anti-drug campaigns targeting parents. Those efforts
rely entirely on donated time from ad agencies and media
The group is now trying to rescue the teen program with the same
donated-media model it uses for the parent campaign. "The choice
was one day the government turns it off and it's gone forever or we
try to step in and rescue it," said Steve Pasierb, the
Partnership's longtime CEO. "We stepped in to keep the campaign
alive." But "we are privatizing it. It's either done through
corporate partnership or pro-bono media."
Why try to save such a highly criticized program? One low point
came in 2004 when Texas State University at San Marcos researchers
found that the government's ads were ineffective, and, worse yet,
could actually be encouraging drug use.
Mr. Pasierb said the problems have been largely fixed. A key
moment, he said, came in 2005 when the campaign was rebranded from
"My Anti-Drug," which focused on the negative consequences of drug
use, to "Above the Influence," which stresses personal autonomy.
For instance, while the old campaign might have shown a boy getting
busted for smoking pot in the restroom, the new approach featured
scenes like a teen being manipulated by different people, until he
walks away. The message: "Don't give up the ability to decide for
Mind-Blowing Moments in the War on
Drugs: A Timeline of
Think some ad agency made up this slogan? Think again. It was
born when First Lady Nancy Reagan met with schoolchildren in
Oakland. A girl asked her what to do if someone offers you drugs.
"Well, you just say no," the First Lady responded,
according to the Ronald Reagan Library.
Do you know who coined the term "drug czar"? None other than Joe
Biden, who as a senator in 1980s called for the position to
anti-drug efforts across government agencies. The position,
formally called the Director of National Drug Control Policy, is
today occupied by R. Gil Kerlikowske, a former police chief in
"I Didn't Inhale"
Talk about triangulation. When put on the spot about drug use
during his presidential run in 1992, Bill Clinton famously declared
he had smoked weed, but "didn't inhale."
Over the Rainbow
Federal Express tried to have some fun with a Super Bowl ad in
2000 that included Wizard of Oz munchkins inhaling helium from
balloons to regain their high-pitched voices. But anti-drug groups
were not laughing and assailed the ad for promoting inhalant
for her "waif look", model Kate Moss was hot choice for marketers
including Burberry and Chanel. But companies were forced to
distance themselves in 2005 after she appeared on the front page of
Britain's Daily Mirror allegedly snorting cocaine.
While President Clinton tiptoed around drug use, then-Senator
Obama told magazine editors in 2006 that
"when I was a kid, I inhaled," adding "that was the point."
The Obama administration lobbies for the end of the phrase "war
on drugs," when newly named drug czar Gil Kerlikowske in 2009
Wall Street Journal that "regardless of how you try to explain
to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see
a war as a war on them," adding, "we're not at war with people in
"The six years of 'Above the Influence' were enormously
successful, but Congress still killed it because they needed the
money," Mr. Pasierb said.
The Partnership still has critics. Mike Males, a senior research
fellow at the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, which
advocates for drug-policy changes, said the Partnership focuses too
much on teens, while there is a "burgeoning" problem of middle-age
drug abuse. "I'm not sure ad campaigns are very effective, anyway,
on drug issues," he added. "The people who are inclined to abuse
drugs are probably not big consumers of ads."
Mr. Pasierb countered that the Partnership targets teens and
their parents because "90% of all adults who are addicted began in
their teenage years." And the group points to several recent
independent studies suggesting that its campaigns are having an
impact. A study published in a 2011 edition of the American Journal
of Public Health stated that "greater exposure to anti-drug
advertisements was significantly related to lower odds of having
ever used marijuana among eighth-grade girls."
The 2013 University of Michigan study revealed mixed results
when it came to overall drug use among teens. While usage of most
illicit drugs among teens held steady or showed "modest decline"
from 2012, marijuana use "has been drifting higher in recent years
following a decade or more of fairly steady decline," according to
the report. Meanwhile, 47% of eighth-graders surveyed last year
said anti-drug ads made them less likely to use drugs in the future
to a "great or very great extent." That's down from 49% in 2012,
but up from 40% in 2000.
Anti-drug ads can work if they're done right, said Lloyd
Johnston, a research professor at the Institute for Social Research
at the University of Michigan who works on the Monitoring the
Future study. "The problem is there is not enough funding for this
kind of work to be really doing all the things that need to be
When it was under government control, the "Above the Influence"
campaign was handled by DraftFCB, which was paid by the Office of
National Drug Control Policy. Now the Partnership must get agencies
to donate their time and secure free media placements. The
organization got $2.5 million in transitional money from the
government, but that dries up this month.
The result is fewer TV ads, at least initially. "There is not
sufficient free teen media to mount a campaign the size of what we
used to do or the size of what [the government] used to buy. That's
why digital is so important to us," Mr. Pasierb said.
At its financial peak in the late 1980s, the Partnership was
able to lure as much as $1 million in free media exposure a day.
Cheerleaders included President George H.W. Bush, who in 1989 held
a special White House briefing in which he lauded the 150 TV
network, agency and corporate execs in attendance. He told them
that "never before in the history of man have such energy and
talent and resources been devoted to getting people not to buy
something," Ad Age reported at the time.
But donations slowed in the ensuing years. Lately, the
Partnership has secured about $100 million worth of media
placements a year, according to Mr. Pasierb. One factor is the rise
of competing advocacy groups, which all vie for free public-service
airtime, Partnership supporters say. Groups securing significant
media exposure this year range from the Arbor Day Foundation to the
World Wildlife Fund, according to Kantar Media.
What the Partnership lacks in media donations it's trying to make
up for with planning expertise. In 2011 the group named Horizon Media President Bill Koenigsberg to
its board and his shop has assumed media-strategy duties on a
pro-bono basis. "In the old days we would send our [ads] to media
and they would run whatever they wanted whenever they wanted," said
Allen Rosenshine, vice chairman of the Partnership's board and
chairman emeritus of BBDO Worldwide. "But we are now much more
concentrated and scientific and professional in our approach."
Last year the Partnership tapped digital shop Atmosphere Proximity, New York, on a pro-bono
basis for an online contest called "Made by Me" that asked teens to
help create the next public service announcement for the "Above the
Influence" campaign. The result was an animated spot encouraging
teens to "recognize the influences around" and "be yourself" that
secured placement on the TeenNick cable network as well as
"Any time you go and ask media owners to donate free inventory
there is always a challenge," Mr. Koenigsberg said. But "you
negotiate from the heart," he added. "You speak about how the power
of the media community can help significantly in eroding drug
Mr. Pasierb credited CBS and Fox with running Partnership ads,
but said "we've never had a meaningful relationship with NBC,"
which he said has "not embraced public service ads on a broad
basis." NBC declined to comment.
The Partnership uses a variety of ad agencies because the
pro-bono work is too much of a burden for one shop, Mr. Pasierb
said. The upside for agencies is they can do work that really
shines on their reel and stands out from the usual work they might
do, he added.
Another recent agency assignment went to Interpublic Group's
Hill Holliday, which is overseeing the
"Medicine Abuse Project" campaign, which seeks to encourage parents
to safeguard their prescription drugs from their children.
One of the spots, which are branded "Mind Your Meds," shows an
adult opening her medicine cabinet. When the mirrored door closes
it shows a reflection of a teen taking his mom's prescription
drugs. Because time is money, it was shot on an accelerated
schedule. "I literally flew out the night before, we shot the next
day … and I was in and out of [Los Angeles] in a span of 24
hours," said Kevin Daley, senior VP-group creative director at Hill
Holliday. Like most agencies, the shop allocates a certain
percentage of its time for pro-bono work. "There's a lot of asks of
us and a lot of people would like us to do work for them," he said.
"But you can't take on everything."
The agency lured actor/director Eric Stoltz, whose directing
credits include Fox's "Glee," to lead the ad shoot. "He is
interested in getting into commercial work so he saw this as an
opportunity to shoot some commercials for his reel." But there was
another reason Mr. Stoltz took on the project, said Mr. Daley: He
was motivated by the death of "Glee" star Cory Monteith, who
overdosed on alcohol and heroin last year.
E.J. Schultz is the News Editor for Ad Age, overseeing breaking news and daily coverage. He also contributes reporting on the beverage, automotive and sports marketing industries. He is a former reporter for McClatchy newspapers, including the Fresno Bee, where he covered business and state government and politics.