Commercials are my Anti-drug

February 1, 2002 | By Sandy Hunter

Advertising to the youth market very often relies on co-opting intangibles like “cool” or the latest street trends; when it comes to moving the latest trainers or Grand Theft Auto 3, this makes perfect sense.

But of course the street brings with it connotations beyond fashion statements or the latest music trend; partying, and often drug use are integral to the lifestyles oft associated with contemporary hip. This makes the task of the Partnership For A Drug Free America (PDFA) all the more challenging.

PDFA is a non-profit, non-governmental organization that relies on donations from the advertising and communications industries. Since 1987, the partnership has distributed hundreds of commercials produced on a pro-bono basis to TV stations across the US, relying on donated airtime to get them in front of young people. Never in this time have the messages sent out said, “Don’t Do Drugs;” the PDFA prefers a less blunt approach, which is of course necessary to maintain a credible, non-preachy voice. “We sometimes think kids know more than we do,” says Bea Bartolotta, director of creative development for PDFA. “We did one spot, ‘Okay To Pass’ [directed by DNA’s Frances Lawrence], that generated a lot of positive feedback from kids because they felt it wasn’t about adults trying to understand their world and spoke credible language, plus a range of ethnic audiences were represented.

“When it comes to credibility, kids don’t know a lot about the Partnership. All spots are signed Partnership For A Drug Free America, but we are not a brand. We are not promoting the organization, but the idea. Rather than coming across as an authoritarian anti-drug organization, our idea is to get into the psyche of these kids and understand their struggles.”

Bartolotta references the book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation by Neil Howe and William Strauss as a solid tome about the demograhic cohort born in or after 1982. She notes that many in this so-called Millennial group are very serious about their future and see drug use as a weekend activity valuable as a way to blow off steam. While many campaigns produced by the PDFA approach individual problem drugs that are increasingly popular among American youth, such as ecstasy or crystal meth (see Method Acting, pg. 29), the organization is looking at ways of addressing the societal or cultural forces that make drug use appealing.

“Working with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, New York, we’ve undertaken research on how to get out of the trap of addressing the drug du jour. Ecstasy or crystal meth are huge problems, but there is a bigger idea. We want to know if there is a strategy or work we can create that doesn’t talk about a specific drug, but the reasons or motivations why kids want to use them,” says Bartolotta. “That’s our big idea right now, putting together an aggressive idea for a creative brief with the idea of getting to the reasons of why kids use.”

An ongoing campaign out of Merkley Newman Harty, New York asked teens, “What’s your anti-drug?” The campaign began in August 2000 and has continued with two new spots offering up drawing and dreams for the future as possible anti-drugs. “My Future” was animated by Curious Pictures with James Patterson of Context Studios directing. “Drawing” was produced by London’s Bermuda Shorts and Jordan Caldwell Films, with Christoph Simon directing.

In 1998, PDFA partnered with the Office Of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) in a five-year proposition focusing on a drug prevention campaign aimed at kids aged 11 to 13 and their parents.

“Essentially kids that age are strongly anti-drug. We want to get to them early when they already have this stance. We focus on marijuana specifically [primarily for its status as a so-called gateway drug] and try to give evidence to inoculate them early,” says Bartolotta. “[The focus] is more on the parents’ side for ONDCP, an efficacy monitoring strategy that asks parents, Keep an eye on your kids.”

J. Walter Thompson, Chicago produced the first monitoring campaign, entitled “Questions.” The spots have kids talking to their parents; younger kids and teens speak frankly to their parents, asking them to keep closer tabs on them and their social activities. The campaign targets parents and PDFA hopes it will allegorize to child-rearers that kids are exposed to street drugs at an early age. Another spot, this one with an older teen as the speaker, begins with the teen ranting against overly strict parents but ultimately thanking them for their guidance; Omaha Pictures’ Peter Goldschmidt directed it.

The concept was reprised in two campaigns out of Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer (MVBMS), New York, one for the general market and one for the Hispanic market. The general market campaign has two spots, “Baby” and “Don’t Get Off My Case.” In “Baby,” a six-month old infant pipes up and scolds her mother for not questioning her older brother on where he is going when he heads out, while she is constantly under her mother’s eye. “Don’t Get Off My Case” has a teenage girl pausing amidst an argument with her parents to describe the psychological roots of her rebellious behavior to the audience. The first Hispanic spot, “Kid,” has a slightly funky kid going out for a night on the town; his mother stops him on his way out the door, but rather than questioning him, she adjusts his hair and garb. Another spot “Party,” has a teenage girl at a party; her actions at first indicate she has scored some drugs and is heading to the bathroom to pop them, but in reality we see she has borrowed a cel phone and is calling home to check in.

Another campaign, developed by McCann Erickson, New York, uses the role model approach. Three US Olympic athletes—snowboarder Rosey Fletcher, alpine skier Chad Flesicher and speed skater Apolo Ohno—agreed to be harnessed with body-cameras for what came to be known as the “Body-Cam” campaign. Each of the spots has the athlete performing their sport while a camera, attached by a rig to their midsections, captures them talking about why they have chosen against doing drugs. The spots, directed by Eden Tyler of Zooma Zooma, touch on issues of athleticism and patriotism and go beyond testimonials into the generally youth-friendly arena of extreme sports.

“Kids want to see something exciting, so this is a positive thing to put in front of them. These are people who obviously don’t do drugs but the message is, I don’t have time for that,” says Bartolotta.

Bartolotta mentions that this campaign was funded by the ONDCP; she notes that projects with ONDCP participation are generally much better funded affairs than the single-shot PSAs generated by PDFA partner agencies. Most often, ONDCP spots see the agencies front the money for production and are then reimbursed. She adds that unlike the donated airtime playing host to Partnership spots, spots from the ONDCP are aired on the back of paid media dollars.

Outside of these and other ongoing collaborations with ad agencies, the PDFA has begun to work with directors. At the beginning of 2001, the PDFA approached the AICP in order to solicit the pro-bono assistance of a number of directors in making several more testimonial spots focusing on a number of key drug issues. Possible topics included party drugs, drug-free zealots, crystal meth, sports, music or alternatives to drug use. Although there was no official funding, US$20,000 was available to recoup costs on shooting the assignment. The spots should begin airing in summer 2002.

“Initially we got reels from 50 companies or individuals who indicated an interest in possibly doing the work. Out of the 50, we contacted 14, talked to them and asked them their ideas. We gave them some broad outlines of things we would deal with, like using real people and stories,” says PDFA vice chair Doria Steedman. “Of those, six directors were part of round one and I have huge faith there will be a round two and onwards.”

Barbara Freeman of Chicago’s Freeman Pictures worked on the theme of parental success stories; Larry Bessler of New York’s Ebel Productions directed spots chronicling the often painful and negative experiences of kids who have escaped drug abuse; Brandon Dickerson of San Francisco’s Kaboom focused on young people who had avoided drug abuse by spending their time doing charitable work; Paul Dektor of Dektor Films and Adam Reed of Elsewhere, both in Los Angeles, shot commercials dealing with ecstasy use, and Peyton Wilson worked on conveying the impact of drugs on families. While one spot each was the initial plan, many of the directors went the extra mile and delivered several spots.

“We have big hopes for continuing this, although most of the work is still in progress. In addition to the PSAs, we produced long form of various types with the idea that we could go to our local media partners and offer them material on various subjects,” says Steedman. “One of the things that was so exciting was that we couldn’t begin to afford hiring these directors who partnered with us, and their points of view, attitudes and skills were essential. I cannot speak highly enough of these people for donating their time and talent. They did everything, locations, casting and concepts. Their fingerprints are all over this work.”