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Can You Just Say No?

Since 1985, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America--with the ad world's best and free media exposure--has been an ally in the war on drugs. New target: heroin.

August 30, 1996|PAMELA WARRICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — It's a fresh new feeling, the coolest high.

So pick up some heroin--and shoot for the sky!

Everybody's doin' it, doin' it.

Everybody's doin' it. . . .

Glamorous parties, a night on the town.

With beautiful people, it's always around!

Everybody's doin' it, doin' it. . . .

Her-o-in! For the rest of your life!

--Television jingle accompanying black-and-white footage of a grimy boy twitching and retching into a filthy toilet

*

On Madison Avenue, it is still revered as one of the hottest marketing ideas of all time.

Take the decision to buy and use heroin (or pot, or coke or any illegal drug) and treat it like any other purchasing choice.

Liken potential addicts to a group of consumers whose buying habits can be manipulated by celebrity endorsements, catchy slogans and powerful images.

Then use those tricks not to sell the product, but to un-sell it.

If the approach works, drugs will finally lose their cool.

It's a very big "if." But for more than a decade, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's pro bono campaign to get and keep American young people off drugs has been betting as much as $1 million worth of advertising every day that it does work.

Since 1985, more than 250 big-name ad agencies from Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and other cities have been enlisted to volunteer their time and talent to create new and better ways of helping people say no to drugs.

Thanks to the Partnership's high-powered connections and unabashed arm-twisting, TV networks, newspapers, magazines and other media outlets have donated more than $2 billion in free space and time to ensure that the messages are seen.

The newest campaign is against heroin. This time its creators are finding their ads against the drug a hard sell.

"These ads are not pretty. They are not nice. They are not polite," says Doria Steedman, the Partnership's director of creative development. She concedes that the ads were designed to disturb and upset.

*

Heroin lets you look at things differently. "I saw a dog and thought: If I was a dog, I wouldn't have a heroin habit. I wish I was a dog."

--Partnership TV spot

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The campaign to show 18- to 25-year-olds the horrors of heroin has been pitched by the Partnership as a necessary preemptive strike. According to the U.S. government, experimentation with heroin is increasing among teens and young adults. "We have to make the case that heroin is a fundamental threat," says retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He has endorsed the Partnership's work and been a spokesman at Partnership news conferences.

The Partnership has dozens of new ads. The problem is getting them seen. Although newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post have given full pages to the campaign as often as once a week, few other papers have been so generous. And while Capital Cities/ABC Inc. television and many big city stations have given the Partnership prime-time advertising spots, some of the most dramatic anti-heroin messages seem to be getting lost in busy daily schedules or not being aired at all.

And, although contracts to spread the Partnership's message are still much sought after among creative types, in-kind gifts of advertising talent, ad preparation, and print space and air times are down at least $100 million since 1991 when the nonprofit group's annual support peaked at $365 million.

"Combine that with a drop in news coverage of the dangers of drug use, and the impact of anti-drug messages on the nation is lower than it has been since we started," says Partnership President Dick Bonnette.

Over the past several years, the Partnership has been fighting a nonchalance about the drug problem--"as if the war on drugs was over, when in fact, it is not even near the end," Bonnette says.

So it came as no surprise here last week when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced that two new surveys reveal teenage drug use has risen sharply since 1992, and with it, young people's visits to hospitals for drug-related emergencies.

*

This is your brain . . . this is drugs . . . this is your brain on drugs.

*

It is one of the most unforgettable images in modern American advertising. Among the Partnership's first and most famous anti-drug spots, it was shown repeatedly on television and in print.

An unbroken egg. A hot pan. The egg frying in the pan. That ad became the calling card of the organization that began with a $300,000 grant from the Associated Advertising Agencies of America and has done more to mobilize volunteer talent against a single social problem than perhaps any other.

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