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A New Ecstasy Campaign

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America will introduce today an ad campaign focusing on the drug Ecstasy and backed by the largest donation of media time it has received.

The Comcast Corporation, the cable giant, has agreed to donate time valued at $51 million over three years. The campaign and the Comcast deal, to be detailed at the National Press Club in Washington, are efforts to answer two big challenges the partnership says it faces: having parents address the dangers of Ecstasy with their children and putting the most effective messages in front of the right audiences.

Comcast's sprawling reach - it has 21 million customers - will allow the partnership to reach parents and teenagers by channel and city.

The partnership's latest research, also to be released today, shows that parents have heard of Ecstasy but rarely talk to their children about it, far less than they discuss other drugs, said Stephen J. Pasierb, president and chief executive.

"Parents don't understand that you've got to keep pace with the drug issue," Mr. Pasierb said. "You've got to know that the menu is changing." The research also shows that parents who see antidrug ads nearly every day are more likely to talk with their children about drugs.

But as with most efforts to affect attitudes and behavior, advocates and industry executives viewed the new ads with a mixture of hope and caution.

"Absolutely, parents should talk to their kids about drugs," said Melissa Martin, a volunteer at the national office of DanceSafe in New York, which does not condone or condemn drug use, instead emphasizing education and harm reduction for those who use drugs. "The majority of people who see these public service announcements from my experience consider them laughable and don't take them seriously at all."

Richard Earle, a social marketing consultant and former ad industry executive, said that while some anti-drug advertising had been very effective, other campaigns have tripped up trying to strike the right tone.

"The thing about social marketing is that there are so many nuances that can tip it either to the good side or toward being ineffective," Mr. Earle said.

The new Ecstasy campaign uses satire and direct talk to try to escape the pitfalls of some past drug ads.

One commercial parodies direct-to-consumer ads for prescription drugs to play up the downsides of Ecstasy. It shows teenagers running happily through bucolic fields as the word "Ecstasy" is superimposed on the screen like a slick corporate logo for a legal product. A teenage girl tells the camera, "Ecstasy changed my life!"

Following the pattern of direct-to-consumer ads, a voiceover begins to warn, "Ecstasy is not for everyone," but inverts the usual model by adding, "In fact, it's not for anyone."

"Side effects," the voiceover continues as the teenagers start looking grim and the landscape darkens, "may include depression, severe anxiety, hypertension, heat strokes, seizures, heart attacks, liver damage, kidney or cardiovascular system failure, worried parents, loss of friends, isolation, emptiness."

The commercial was created by Gotham in New York, part of the Interpublic Group of Companies.

"The pills have these branded logos on them, the name Ecstasy itself is a brand, so we thought it was only right to use advertising and marketing techniques against this drug," said Dan Sheehan, group creative director at Gotham.

John Roberts, group account director, said the agency tried to improve upon some earlier antidrug ads by making this one stylistically striking. "We see a lot of the antidrug advertising and a lot of it is not always that memorable," he said. "If you're serious about reaching younger people, you really have to do something that isn't just wallpaper."

Two other spots, created by McKee Wallwork Henderson in Albuquerque, are starker, each showing just one actor speaking to the camera. The first holds steady on a woman who asks parents if their children are watching television with them. If so, she says, they should talk to their children about Ecstasy - immediately. She waits silently before demanding whether parents have begun the conversation yet.

The woman's long pause is intended to produce some unease, said Steve McKee, president at McKee Wallwork. "When she sits back in her chair for a few seconds, it feels like 30 minutes," he said. "There's simply no way they can avoid having the conversation."

The second commercial resembles a public service announcement aimed strictly at teenagers but doubles as a warning to parents. A young narrator tells teenagers that they might fool their parents with techniques like hiding Ecstasy pills in vitamin bottles, but the drug remains dangerous.

"Ecstasy is something kids can hide," Mr. McKee said. By putting a clean-cut teenager on the screen and disclosing some of the ways teenagers conceal their Ecstasy use, the ad alerts parents who may not have considered their own "good kids" at risk, he said.

The campaign, with print and outdoor components, also directs people to askyourkidsaboutecstasy.com, a Web site that leads visitors to the Ecstasy Alert section of the partnership site.

The Comcast commitment means that the television campaign will receive considerable exposure, about 70 showings weekly in each of its many markets. After its acquisition of AT&T Broadband last November, Comcast operates in 17 of the country's 20 largest metropolitan areas.

The Comcast commitment to the partnership did not impress some longtime critics of the company's power. Jeff Chester, executive director at the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, an advocacy group, called it a bid to build political good will in the many markets Comcast entered as a result of its AT&T acquisition.

"This is part of a political strategy to help buy friends and influence people," Mr. Chester said.

Stephen B. Burke, executive vice president at Comcast and president at Comcast Cable, described the company's motivation very differently. He said that building relationships in its new markets was one reason the commitment made sense.

"Now that the foundation is set, we can start to work at building our brand and help the communities that we serve," Mr. Burke said. "It's a wonderful combination of being the right thing for the business and also the right thing to do."

While good corporate citizenship can enhance the company brand, the deal works well for Comcast for other reasons as well, said Stephen M. Adler, chief executive at JAMI Charity Brands in New York, which helps match nonprofit groups with corporate benefactors.

"One of the benefits to a media company like Comcast," Mr. Adler said, "is that they're able to utilize either some of their existing media or unused media for a good cause."

Posted on aef.com: October 21, 2003


Nat Ives, The New York Times. October 16, 2003

Copyright © 2003 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.