Whatever Happened to the Ad War on Drugs?

After Peaking at Rate of $1M in Media Time a Day in Late 80s, Anti-Drug Campaign Airtime Has Been on Steady Decline

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Credit: John Kuczala for Ad Age

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 driving.

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 federal budget.

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 companies.

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.

Steve Pasierb
Steve Pasierb

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 yourself."

"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 done."

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.

Scientific approach
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 MTV.com.

"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 abuse."

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.

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