After decades of combating issues from drunk driving to wildfire prevention with nationwide PSA campaigns, the Ad Council is tackling a new opponent: the fentanyl crisis.
The Ad Council announced the launch of the first phase of its “Real Deal on Fentanyl” campaign during an Advertising Week panel on Monday, following a May press release from the organization that laid out its plan to address the epidemic of fentanyl-driven overdoses in the U.S. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the potent synthetic opioid is often mixed into other drugs—both recreational, like heroin and cocaine, and counterfeit prescription pills made to resemble anti-anxiety medications or stimulants—and frequently causes overdoses due to its strength. Overdose deaths soared 52% in 2021, with roughly two-thirds of these deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to an Ad Council press release.
This initial stage of the campaign focuses on educating teens and young adults about the dangers posed by the drug through social media-oriented educational content, much of it revolving around information from an unorthodox source—former drug dealers.
The Ad Council partnered with creative agency Joan to develop a hands-on, fentanyl-focused lesson plan for high school students with content guided by the nonprofit organization Shatterproof and insight from three former drug dealers who took on the role of teachers in a pilot run of the program at Holyoke High School in Holyoke, Massachusetts.
Joan’s in-house studio produced a documentary-style PSA that captures scenes from this program launch, which will be broken down into snippets of educational content distributed across social media and collected on the campaign website, RealDealOnFentanyl.com.
At Holyoke High School, the three former dealers, Didi, James and Kyle, put a twist on traditional school subjects, turning health class into a demonstration of how to administer the overdose-reversing medication Naloxone; an economics class into a discussion of why drug dealers include fentanyl in their products despite its dangers; and a chemistry lesson into an opportunity to show teens how the presence of fentanyl—which is odorless and tasteless—is largely untraceable when added to a drug.
“Fentanyl is killing us,” capitalized text set against a bright red backdrop reads in the video. “It took thousands of our friends last year. Why aren’t we learning about it?”
Joan chose to center the voices of these former drug dealers in the campaign to cut through the “white noise” of traditional anti-drug PSAs and catch the attention of the campaign’s adolescent audience, Jaime Robinson, co-founder and chief creative officer at the agency, told Ad Age. And with kids already seeking out information about a wide range of topics on the internet and social media platforms, she wanted the campaign to meet these teens where they were already spending much of their time.
The aim is to provide them with vital information to protect them and their loved ones from becoming victims to fentanyl overdoses themselves—especially with many adolescents seeking out drugs for mental health issues that, when acquired from dealers, have the potential to be laced with fentanyl.
“When we were talking to the kids in Holyoke, they felt empowered by having information they wouldn’t normally get from grownups,” she said. “Grownups are not normally saying, ‘This is how you revive somebody if they have an overdose.’ They don’t dare talk about them.” The lesson plan taught to the Holyoke students will be available on the campaign website for other schools across the U.S. to download and use to educate their own students, she said.
Robinson said her own teenage daughter begged her mother to share this information at her school, as she and many of her friends are unaware of the dangers of fentanyl. “She was like, ‘This is so dangerous. How do we not talk about this? How do we not know about it?’” Robinson said. “I think that is the most important thing: nobody is talking about this. Parental authority figures are not talking about this. Kids need to know that this is happening.”
Even a single pill containing fentanyl can result in a fatal overdose, said Kirsten Seckler, chief marketing and communications officer for Shatterproof, a nonprofit that oversaw the educational content incorporated into the campaign. An amount of the drug equivalent to a few grains of sand can be lethal, and people can experience an overdose even from the first time trying the drug, she said. But, according to the Ad Council press release, only one in four teens have heard of the potential risk of fentanyl being mixed into counterfeit prescription pills.
This first, adolescent-focused portion of the campaign is funded by YouTube and Snap, and the Ad Council has also partnered with Twitter, TikTok, SXM Media and several other companies that will donate media space to spread the campaign’s educational content across these platforms. In the coming months, the campaign’s second phase, led by Meta, will seek to educate parents about the fentanyl crisis and provide tools to help them talk with their children about protecting themselves from the drug.
In addition to the social media content produced by Joan and distributed across these various platforms, the Ad Council is partnering with creators and influencers to further spread the campaign’s messaging and share their personal experiences with fentanyl overdoses within their families or communities. In the same vein as the decision to have former drug dealers provide firsthand insight into the threat posed by fentanyl, the “trusted and authentic voices” that influencers offer seeks to help the campaign stand out in teenagers’ typical scrolls through social media, Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council’s chief campaign development officer, said in an interview.
Above all, the campaign seeks to raise as much awareness about the widespread danger of fentanyl, whether through social media, these in-school lessons or through future efforts like signage on college campuses that will reach “everywhere that kids are,” Hillman said. And the students at Holyoke High School, who have already received that education, agree. As one student states simply at the end of the PSA video, “More kids should know.”