The Consumer Republic: Behavior Modification

Whether the $1 billion in media money pledged to the anti-drug effort by the government will actually reduce drug use is an open question. But it’s a no-brainer where the ad industry is concerned: We have a win-win-win situation. A social service is being performed. Agencies that could only dream of prime-time exposure have a shot at reaching millions and enjoying wide publicity for their work. And the media get to zap unpaid PSAs off the air and service a new client with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend over five years. All courtesy of the American taxpayer.
Not to be too cynical about it. Speaking as a viewer who’s noticed a decline in PSAs over the last few years, I’m glad to see the practice of pro bono advertising freed from the creepy opportunism of network branding strategies–even if it does cost the public a bundle. As ad award shows testify, public service work often ranks with the best communications of the season; and the ad scene has suffered from PSA’s fading visibility.
By the time all the media money is spent, however, not only will lots of PSAs have aired, but the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, now a quasi-government agency, will be a highly recognizable brand in its own right. Its partnership with the Office of National Drug Control Policy goes into phase two with the rollout of a $175 million national campaign. Since the beginning of the year, 29 ads–true confessions of reformed survivors, celebrity anti-endorsements, celebrations of young ghetto hero/heroines, scare-’em-straight visceral shockers–have been airing in 12 test markets. Twenty-four more are waiting for the go-ahead from the client’s chief, Gen. Barry McCaffrey. Originally scheduled for May, the campaign’s national debut is now expected July 9.
Given that the government’s foray into social engineering as a paying customer is unprecedented, the paid ad initiative has engendered little controversy. Instead, it enjoys the kind of bipartisan support that’s brought Mario Cuomo and William Bennett together in the PDFA boardroom. True, there is plenty of skepticism about the effectiveness of anti-drug advertising, but none of it’s in Washington, where faith in the power of advertising crosses all party lines.
Says PDFA president and CEO Richard Bonnette, “Politicians use [paid advertising] to get elected, the U.S. Army uses it to recruit soldiers, and corporations from McDonald’s to General Motors invest billions in advertising each year for one reason–it works.”
Indeed, it’s already worked for politicians anxious to, well, advertise their opposition to drugs and their devotion to young people. The paid media initiative–a scant 1 percent of the total anti-drug budget–has been a PR plum.
The curious and ironic thing about the consensus surrounding the government’s unselling of drugs is that it comes at a time of such widespread anti-government sentiment. According to this view, the public sector is not fit to educate the populace or collect the garbage or run a prison. But it is fit to engineer our behavior, just like any other marketer.
Or almost. Unselling is its own art, demanding from the consumer the opposite of what most ads ask. Stop and think, anti-drug ads urge the audience. Don’t be influenced. Don’t be stupid. Exercise independent judgment. Don’t give into immediate pleasure. Look at the big picture. In other words, they say the opposite of what all other ads say. One could even argue that advertising promotes the consumer attitudes that encourage drug use. But no one does. In the Consumer Republic, advertising is the solution, even to the problem of advertising.
In fact, I predict that unselling will be as much a growth industry as selling is. Once the government goes into the attitude- adjustment business, it’s likely to stay, thanks to two dependable social laws: One is the rule of the public sector, which holds that every government expenditure, once committed, takes on a life of its own, perpetuated by the interest groups–the ONDCP, the PDFA, ad agencies and media–that benefit from it.
The other is the law of the private sector, which says that the presence of marketing always produces more marketing. It is, after all, the proliferation of TV marketing that turned the anti-drug forces into paid advertisers in the first place.
If the anti-drug ad effort succeeds (and as long as the ONDCP defines success, it will), there’s all kinds of politically marketable causes to champion. The unselling of tobacco has already commenced and will grow, thanks to the states, if not the feds. From there, it is a short leap from unselling anti-social habits to selling pro-social ones: good nutrition, reading to your children, public civility.
After all, advertising works, doesn’t it?