he mission was clear and noble back in 1997: Keep young Americans away from drugs. The best minds on Madison Avenue had agreed to donate their creative talents to produce a powerful advertising campaign. The television networks would provide ad time at a 50 percent discount. Congress would appropriate a generous $1 billion over five years. Almost everyone agreed that this was the way a government program should work.
Six years later, the media campaign launched by the Office of National Drug Control Policy has reached parents, who, studies indicate, are increasingly monitoring their kids and talking to them about the dangers of drug abuse. But ironically, the campaign has yet to reach its main target: children. According to a multiyear study released last year by the Rockville, Md.-based research firm Westat, teen-agers exposed to federal anti-drug ads were no less likely to use drugs for having viewed them, and some young girls said they were even more likely to give drugs a try.
And that's not the only problem. Last year, the drug office's primary outside contractor, New York-based public relations firm Ogilvy & Mather, was forced to settle charges that it had overbilled the agency by more than $1 million, and the firm still may face criminal indictment. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the New York nonprofit organization that serves as the ONDCP's liaison to Madison Avenue, has openly feuded with the drug office. And in an interview last year with the The Wall Street Journal, White House drug czar John Walters said the campaign-as of May 2002-had failed. Now, with the campaign up for reauthorization, Congress is trying to decide what went wrong and whether the effort is even worth continuing.
There is no shortage of explanations for why things went awry. Walters blames poor ads that weren't resonating with teen-agers. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America argues that ONDCP's convoluted bureaucracy stifled the advertising agencies' creative experts and spent too much money on nonadvertising efforts. Alan Levitt, the director of the ONDCP campaign, says the advertising campaign may simply need more time to succeed. After all, he says, it must compete with other cultural influences that create an atmosphere of ambivalence toward drug use.
Whatever the cause of its problems, the ONDCP media campaign is facing considerable scrutiny this year as Congress considers whether to fund it for another five years. Last year, after Drug Czar Walters promised in Senate testimony that he would show results within a year or admit failure, Congress agreed to extend the campaign through 2003 while cutting funding for the ads from $170 million in 2002 to $150 million this year. Walters, in turn, has focused for the past year on rescuing the program. He's worked to patch up relations with the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, and he's rolled out an entirely new advertising campaign. But many advertising experts argue that although Walters' new campaign may resonate with adults, its approach won't work with teen-agers.
LINK TO TERROR
Westat, which is working under a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse, will release its next evaluation of the program's advertising efforts later this year. Until then, it will be impossible to know how well Walters has succeeded. But he's certainly put out some of the campaign's most memorable ads. Anyone who's watched even a little television in the past year has probably seen ads linking drug purchases to terrorism. One of the most haunting ads-which ran during the Super Bowl-featured a young girl standing in an office addressing a woman at her desk. "You killed me," the girl says to the woman. "There was a bomb. I was going to school." The woman responds in disbelief, "Well, what does that have to do with me?" The girl explains: "You bought drugs. You gave the money. They can't do things like that without money."
That ad, and a series of similar spots produced by Ogilvy & Mather, ran from late 2001 through May of this year. The goal, says Walters, was to convince Americans in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks that drug use funds terrorism, a connection that Walters says few people made before the ads started running. "We went from something where there was little knowledge to common acceptance that the American drug consumer is a funder of anti-democratic forces," he says.
Another series of ads that started running late last year attempts to connect the use of marijuana with traffic accidents, unplanned pregnancies, carelessness with firearms and listlessness. In one spot, a teen-age boy high on marijuana accidentally fires his parents' gun. The ad implies, but does not actually show, that the bullet hits the boy or a friend with whom he is talking. In another ad, a couple discover that their teen-age daughter has become pregnant after having sex under the influence of marijuana. These ads, says Walters, target the "single biggest area of ignorance" about drugs: "Marijuana is not taken seriously enough. More young people are in treatment for marijuana than all other drugs combined," he says. With the terrorism ads now having finished their run, the campaign will focus almost exclusively on marijuana for the next several months.
Another Walters change is to target most of the ads at teen-agers, especially those age 14 to 16. (The campaign used to target a broader range, starting with 11-year-olds.) And, whereas the percentage of ads aimed at parents used to be higher than that targeting children, Walters says that 60 percent of the ads now are aimed at kids, and 40 percent at their parents. He says the changes have made a difference. And he points out that recent tracking surveys indicate that teen drug use has declined for the first time in 10 years, though no study has linked the decline directly to the ad campaign.
Undoubtedly, people have seen the new ads and remember them. Surveys indicate that television viewers recall the ads more readily than even some major consumer advertising. But there is considerable debate within the advertising community about whether the ads resonate with teen-agers.
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which produces most of the ONDCP's ads, decided that the hard-hitting approach favored by Walters would not be successful in reaching teen-agers. After the partnership declined to move forward with Walters' plan, the drug office asked Ogilvy & Mather to produce the ads. Since then, they've generated tremendous controversy.
Richard Earle, a former New York advertising executive who's written a book on social marketing campaigns, says the Ogilvy ads were top-notch in their production quality. But teen-agers, he says, won't buy the message. "It's the moralist shaking his finger at the kids. The kids are going to say, 'I don't get it, and I reject it.'" By attacking drug users directly, the campaign fails to resonate with rebellious teen-agers, says Cheryl Healton, president of the American Legacy Foundation, a Washington-based organization that was created with money paid by the major tobacco companies to settle a lawsuit brought by states' attorneys general against the tobacco industry in the late 1990s. The foundation is running a national anti-tobacco advertising campaign.
Healton also questions the ONDCP's recent decision to focus on marijuana. Most teen-agers know people, including adults, who use or have used the drug and who lead normal lives, she says. In addition, among drugs that directly cause illness and death, marijuana ranks low. "When you try to convince savvy kids [to avoid marijuana] when they see a whole range of drugs with much more serious side effects and risks, there is a credibility problem," she says.
The foundation's anti-tobacco campaign, by contrast, appeals to teen-agers' sense of rebellion and social justice by attacking the tobacco companies and placing them, not the smoker, at the center of the advertisements. In the campaign's lead ad, for example, a truck pulls up and teen-agers unload body bags in front of the headquarters of tobacco company Philip Morris to demonstrate the number of deaths caused by smoking each year. Other spots highlight the tobacco companies' use of false advertising and tobacco company documents revealing their strategies for marketing cigarettes to children.
A study published in the June 2002 American Journal of Public Health found that in the first 10 months of the foundation's ad campaign, the percentage of teen-agers who held anti-tobacco views jumped from 6 percent to 26 percent. Among high school students who reported high exposure to the ad campaign, there was a 29 percent decline in smoking rates.
Still, Healton acknowledges that she has a much easier task than Walters. She has only one product to attack-tobacco-which causes widely acknowledged health problems. And she has a ready bogeyman in the tobacco industry, which for years lied about the harmful effects of cigarettes while deliberately marketing them to children. But she says the ONDCP's attempt to demonize drug dealers isn't as easy when the dealer could be "a friend with the next locker over that's selling pot." At the same time, she notes, most of the ONDCP's drugs-and-terrorism ads focused on the drug user's decision to use drugs, a guilt trip that Healton says doesn't work with teen-agers.
Healton also notes that it is very hard to gauge the success of national ad campaigns targeting drugs or tobacco. Because the ads air widely on television, no representative control group of people who have not seen them exists. Even if drug use goes up or down, it's difficult to draw a direct link to an advertising campaign. Many other factors may be at work. And if such factors were leading more teen-agers to experiment with marijuana, she says, just keeping marijuana use from rising might be a success story. In the case of tobacco, she admits, there already was a downward trend in smoking among youth when her foundation's campaign began.
Another clear advantage Healton has over the ONDCP is that she has been able to work closely with two advertising agencies: Boston-based Arnold Worldwide and Miami's Crispin Porter + Bogusky. The ONDCP, because it is required by Congress to rely almost exclusively on ads produced through the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, has worked with more than 60 different agencies. Healton wonders whether advertising agencies that work with the partnership for free might be inclined to cut corners or rush the creative process. The arrangement "has the potential of creating a situation where too many cooks spoil the broth," she says.
Indeed, that may already have happened. Even though ONDCP has received millions of dollars worth of free advertising through the partnership, it's apparent that the highly touted public-private partnership to produce and air the ads never has really worked.
For many years prior to the launch of the ONDCP's campaign, the partnership had convinced top advertising agencies to donate staff time to create anti-drug advertising. Founded in 1986, the partnership was the brainchild of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the largest Washington trade group for Madison Avenue firms. Funded by the association's member firms and reliant on TV networks willing to donate air time, the partnership's campaign was from the start a public relations coup for the agencies. President Reagan called the campaign a shining example of how the private sector could help in solving societal problems. One of the partnership's first ads-featuring a frying egg and the line "This is your brain on drugs"-became in the 1980s perhaps the most well-known anti-drug advertisement ever produced. But by the late 1990s, the partnership was finding it increasingly difficult to persuade TV networks to donate time for its anti-drug ads. Thus, in 1997, the partnership approached ONDCP about joining forces to produce a government-funded campaign. The government would pay for the ad time on television, and the partnership's ad agencies would provide free content.
But from the beginning, the partnership and ONDCP have feuded over strategy. The partnership has urged the drug office to streamline its approval process for new ads. It also has tried to convince ONDCP to spend more on air time for ads and less on related public relations efforts. Partnership officials also have taken offense when the drug office has chosen to work with advertising agencies outside the partnership.
The dispute came to a head last year when the partnership's then-chairman, James E. Burke, the former CEO of Johnson & Johnson, told a Senate panel that the drug office had "embraced a terribly complex, unfocused, theoretical plan." Rather than focusing on ads that explained the risks and social disapproval of drugs, he said, the drug office had adopted more than a dozen different messages in its ads, diluting their power. In addition, the office had established "a 26-step, 10-month-long process for approving ads, replacing an eight-step process that took considerably less time. . . . It's bureaucracy at its worst," Burke said.
In a Sept. 9, 2002, Adweek article, partnership President Stephen Pasierb complained that the process for creating new ads had not only become "Byzantine," but that getting a new spot on the air was taking up to 194 days, more than twice as long as it would take in the private sector. As an example of the continuing bureaucratic hang-ups, he explained that if ONDCP wanted to interview nine or more people in a focus group, the Office of Management and Budget had to sign off that the research was not an undue burden on the American people.
The drug office has its own list of complaints about the partnership. Until last year, ONDCP anti-drug campaign chief Levitt and his staff never had been able to meet with creative personnel at the partnership's advertising agencies. Moreover, if they wanted an agency to make changes, they would have only one, at most two, shots at revision, he says.
Often the ad agencies didn't provide ads on time. That's why new ads have taken a while to get on the air, he says. The agencies' tardiness in the past, he adds, had forced ONDCP to put ads on the air without first testing them. Then, in some cases, Levitt says, the drug office had to pull the ads quickly because they "were having the exact opposite impact of what we intended." As a result, Walters put in place a new policy last year requiring that all ads be tested before they hit the airwaves. In addition, the drug office has urged Congress to continue to allow it to hire agencies outside the partnership when the partnership cannot produce ads in a timely fashion.
But the drug office's arguments haven't won over skeptical members of Congress, who have reprimanded the office for bringing its feud with the partnership to Capitol Hill. Last year, for example, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., called the backbiting "deplorable," and in a report released with reauthorization legislation this year, the House Government Reform Committee warned the drug office and the partnership to settle their disputes among themselves.
In the past year, Walters and the partnership's new chairman, Roy Bostock (who replaced Burke last fall), have met several times, and the relationship between them is strong. ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley says Bostock "has been instrumental in redirecting the relationship between the groups" in a positive way.The partnership is setting up meetings between the creative agencies and ONDCP for the first time, and Bostock, who chairs the executive committee of the advertising and communications conglomerate Bcom3 Group, is working to provide a greater reservoir of ads in advance to enable Walters to test each one before it airs.
But in Congress, the two groups continue to battle over the reauthorization legislation. The partnership has urged the House and Senate to write a bill requiring the drug office to spend almost all of its money on advertising. The drug office, meanwhile, contends that it needs flexibility to spend at least some funds on outreach to corporations-which have formed a partnership with ONDCP to distribute anti-drug materials to parents and to provide free advertising space in stores. It also wants to get materials to television writers, who have used them in the past to emphasize the harmful effects of drugs in scripts for TV shows.
In June, the drug office held events to educate parents that the first month of summer is when most teen-agers first try drugs. "We did a nice PR campaign, we got materials to parents, to organizations like the YMCA, and to shopping mall owners," says Riley. "The expenditure was low, but it wound up in hundreds of newspaper stories, and radio, where parents were listening."
Similar outreach efforts have yielded free publicity for the anti-drug campaign. Safeway supermarkets, for example, have printed anti-drug messages on shopping bags, milk cartons and even delivery trucks. Northwest Airlines, United Airlines and U.S. Airways have run anti-drug advertising with their in-flight programming. And the drug office has worked with dozens of corporations, unions and trade associations to tell parents about how to talk to their children about drugs.
The Westat survey does not evaluate the success of these nonadvertising programs, but ONDCP's Levitt contends they are critical to a successful campaign. The American Legacy Foundation, he notes, spends about 40 percent of its anti-smoking funds on non-advertising public relations. But all of these efforts, he says, would have to be scrapped if Congress requires the drug office to spend its funds almost exclusively on advertising.
Thus far, the partnership is winning the debate. Legislation passed by the House in July to reauthorize the program for five years would require that 80 percent of the organization's funding for media efforts be used to place ads. In Levitt's view, this micromanagement hurts the campaign. "We get advice from the best advertisers and marketers in business and experts in the public health community," he says. "The drug czar needs to be able to run this program as he sees fit."
Levitt would like to continue to work with creative talent outside the partnership when its agencies can't provide new ads quickly. But the House bill requires the drug office to rely almost exclusively on the partnership for content, limiting the amount that the drug czar can spend on advertising agencies outside the partnership to $2 million a year. The czar could spend $1 million at his own discretion but would have to receive congressional approval to spend the other $1 million.
On one critical point, however, the drug office may come out a winner. The House bill would replace the Westat study with a more general evaluation that relies on existing studies that gauge drug abuse. Walters is a proponent of the change, arguing that the Westat study, which is updated every six months, comes out too frequently to fairly evaluate the ad campaign. He prefers to cite such studies as the University of Michigan's Monitoring the Future report, which evaluates whether drug use is rising or falling but does not attempt to gauge whether the ONDCP ad campaign caused the result.
The greater problem for Walters likely will come in the Senate, where a reauthorization proposal has not yet been introduced. Skepticism about the ad campaign runs considerably higher there than in the House.
Last year, for example, at a Senate hearing, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., who sits on the panel responsible for overseeing the reauthorization, said that "unless we do better or make some changes, I am inclined to think we ought to scrap the whole program and start over."
Such feelings were bipartisan. Democratic Sen. Dorgan indicated that he didn't buy Walters' arguments about problems with the Westat study. "When you talk about accountability," Dorgan said, "I think the ultimate in accountability is when you spend $1 billion, do an evaluation, and then have someone say to you there is little or no favorable evidence to report. . . . That is accountability."
Last year, the Senate eventually agreed to give Walters a one-year extension. But without a favorable result in the final Westat evaluation, scheduled for release this November, senators may be much more reluctant to continue the program.