Starting with an idea hatched by Los Angeles ad guru Phillip Joanou in 1985, the Partnership has created, aired, printed, skywritten and song-and-danced some $2 billion worth of anti-drug public service messages. For most of its history, the Partnership has been sustained by substantial grants from the Princeton, N.J.-based Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds many health projects, especially those aimed at fighting substance abuse.
Early Partnership ads have featured such images as a girl with the barrel of a revolver pushed up one nostril and a father singing a lullaby to his little daughter from his coffin.
Those spots, which were aired at no cost to the Partnership on network prime time, led the group's charge against the social use of cocaine among the so-called cold shrimp and chardonnay crowd.
Partnership Vice Chairman Thomas Hedrick, who has been with the nonprofit group since its launch, recalls the early days when he and other veterans of New York City's ad wars discovered to their chagrin that they knew next to nothing about illegal drugs and the youthful target audience for their ads.
"I could have told you in 60 seconds everything there was to know about laundry soap or chewing gum or who used what and why," Hedrick says, "than I could have told you about the drug problem in our country in an entire year." The upshot of that realization was the birth of a full-time and highly aggressive research staff.
"We needed to know our consumer--as well as our competition," says Ginna Marston, the Partnership's research chief. "If we are going to compete with possibly the most alluring, most effective come-on in the history of social interaction, we'd best know everything there is to know about current attitudes toward drugs and drug users."
It didn't take long for the Partnership to discover that the decision to experiment with drugs was based on two things: the consumer's perception of the risk involved and the perception of social disapproval.
Or, in the words of one young Partnership research subject, "Is it cool? And will I die?"
So when I started doing drugs, that part of me died--that part of me that, like, found joy in life and just day to day living, it went away.
--Television spot in the campaign against heroin
Big agencies such as Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, J. Walter Thompson and BBDO Worldwide joined the consortium. Top executives from the Procter & Gamble Co., the New York Times and the USA Network sat on its board of directors.
So much creative talent was vying for Partnership "assignments" that agencies would send only their best and brightest writers and producers to the contest of ideas staged monthly in a dimly lit boardroom in the Partnership's headquarters near the top of the Chrysler Building.
"The people who compete--they compete!--to do ads for us for which they will not be paid. That is the most amazing thing about this organization," says Steedman, the Partnership's director of creative development. "In this cutthroat industry, where killing the competition is everything, we get the people who write Pepsi to sit down with the people who write about Coke and work together.
"We have 240 agencies around the country churning out ads and, unlike some PSAs, our creative contributors know just as the media knows these ads will get ya. They'll pull you right in."
Johnny, age 21: This is my parents' house in East Brunswick, N.J. My house where I grew up. I've stolen jewelry from the house. I've stole a CD player from my parents. I'll go into any store. I'll steal anything. . . . I don't think about the food I need. . . . It's just, you know, I need a bag. That's it.
--Television spot in the campaign against heroin
According to Forbes magazine, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has enjoyed a single-brand advertising clout second only to McDonald's, which outspends the nonprofit by more than 2 to 1.
But do the ads work? Do they change behavior?
In 1994, the Pediatrics Department at Johns Hopkins University Medical School conducted a study to measure the "deterrence effect" of anti-drug advertising on young people. That survey concluded that because American adolescents spend dozens of hours each week watching television, they view the medium as their main source of information about drugs.
"No one presumes advertising is going to stop all drug abuse in America," says Chris Policano, spokesman for the L.A.-based Phoenix House, a substance abuse service agency. "But there is no question that when radio and television are playing Partnership ads, they counter the positive drug messages in our culture.
"Using the idea that attitudes change behavior and using the best ad minds to denormalize drug use, they have sent a very strong message over the years, and their work is a very important component in the national effort to reduce drug use."