The Bush administration's new antidrug advertising campaign seeks to strike a chord with young people by linking drug use to supporting terrorism. But it has struck a nerve with critics who contend the message is inappropriate and goes too far.
The criticism, from both traditional foes of White House drug policy and individuals who typically support antidrug messages, has produced parodies, editorials, debate and even research, although the advertisements have been out for only two months.
Proponents call the advertisements powerful and factual. Critics say that the link between drug use and terrorism is overreaching wartime propaganda.
John P. Walters, director of the White House drug office, said the idea for connecting drug use and terrorism came after the State Department identified 28 terrorist organizations and linked nearly half of them to drug trafficking.
The campaign began with two 30-second spots by Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, part of the WPP Group, during Super Bowl XXXVI for about $1.9 million each. The commercials are running on at least eight networks or cable channels, including NBC, ABC and ESPN, while print ads are in nearly 300 newspapers.
The first 30-second spot, called "I helped," shows a series of young people saying things like: "I helped murder families in Colombia - it was just innocent fun." "I helped a bomber get a fake passport - all the kids do it." "I helped blow up buildings - my life, my body." It ends with the tag line: "Drug money supports terror. If you buy drugs, you might, too."
The second 30-second spot, called "AK-47," follows the style of MasterCard's "priceless" advertisements by McCann-Erickson Worldwide Advertising in New York, a unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. Images of rental cars with trunks full of automatic weapons, a safe house and a man buying box cutters - poignant images for American viewers after Sept. 11 - are flashed on the screen followed by: "Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."
Variations of the "I helped" advertisements are running in more than 300 newspapers.
Critics, including some parents, say that the advertisements' negative-niche strategy is unlikely to be effective.
"It's a colossal waste of money," Jane Marcus, a mother of two and member of the Parents and Teachers Association in Palo Alto, Calif., said of the advertisements. "The argument is fallacious to begin with and plays on people's fears - the two aren't connected," she said of the link between terror and drug abuse.
Ethan A. Nadelmann, executive director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which favors a strategy based more on treatment, said: "This is a shameless exploitation of the war on terror. The government is trying to bolster a failing war on drugs by linking it to the war on terrorism." His nonprofit group paid $8,000 to parody the ads in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper.
Mr. Walters said that while there was no way to measure the effectiveness of the advertisements yet, reaction to the spots had been enough to persuade him to extend the campaign through the summer and to add several new advertisements.
The drug office used focus groups and consulted with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Administration to develop the advertisements. They are the most widely tested spots since the media campaign began in 1998, when Congress approved nearly $1 billion over five years for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, Mr. Walters said.
The campaign's Web site (www.mediacampaign.org) includes a list of several events, from the detonation of terrorist car bombs in Colombia to the murder of Mexican officials with AK-47's, to support the claims of the ads.
The campaign supplants the free advertising that was organized for years by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, a coalition of communications and advertising professionals.
In the late 1990's, black-and-white advertisements by Keye/Donna/Pearlstein featuring the slogan "This is your brain on drugs" illustrated the negative effects of illicit drug use on the body with a frying pan and egg. The ads played on what the campaign's creators thought would be a desire by young people to have healthy bodies, a notion that may not have been effective.
"There's always been a problem, especially with teenagers, that they're not as sensitive to personal physical harm or risk as people at other ages," Mr. Walters said.
Now the strategy is to play on pride and ideals rather than personal health. "They're idealistic, they care about what the world is going to be like for them, they care about what they stand for in the world as they become adults," Mr. Walters said.
The National Survey of Parents and Youth, a report commissioned by the drug office and the National Institute on Drug Abuse, is monitoring the effectiveness of the campaign. Westat Inc. and the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania are conducting the study.
Robert C. Hornik, a professor at the Annenberg School, said the study has generally found that people recall antidrug ads based more on the number of times they see them rather than the messages the ads actually contain.
Some youth education and development professionals see the value of such advertisements that deviate from a more traditional and positive message.
"This presents and brings together the connection between substance abuse and other social problems," said Sue Stepleton, president and chief executive of Parents as Teachers National Center Inc. in St. Louis. The organization develops family support and education programs for parents.
Allison North Jones, The New York Times. April 2, 2002
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