Drug Czar: Pay for Ads

To fix the broken anti-drug media campaign, drug czar John Walters said the government should buy creative instead of using ads produced pro bono by agencies.

The move, unprecendented in the effort and unusual for public-service campaigns, will likely lead to a showdown in Congress and a call for hearings, Congressional staffers said.

Sources said the drug czar’s real intent is to kill the campaign, or at least shift blame for its ineffectiveness. The results of a study conducted by an independent research firm found that the effort raised parent’s awareness, but has not changed teen behavior.

At issue is why teen agers’ drug use has remained the same, rather than declined, for the campaign’s past two-and-a-half years. In an interview with Adweek, Walters blamed the ads, saying the campaign needs more direct, hard-hitting messages that are not necessarily present in the pro bono work produced for the effort. Walters said he can get effective ads by paying an estimated $10-$20 million for creative, and by getting ONDCP involved in the process earlier.

“I don’t believe any major advertiser in the business world would stay with the campaign, especially with results like this,” he said. “We tried to save some money, but we are being penny-wise but pound-foolish.”

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which manages about 40 agencies that contribute pro bono ads, said the problem is a cumbersome creative-review process man dated by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, an ineffective message strategy that ONDCP paid a public relations firm nearly $1 million to produce and the office’s decision to spend only $130 million of an $180 million budget on media buys. The rest is spent on PR, pamphlets and a Web site.

“You don’t say to Congress it is not working, we have wasted $1 billion and please continue funding it,” said Partnership president and CEO Ste phen Pasierb. “It seems to me that if John Walters were trying to preserve the campaign, he would be going about it in a different manner.”

Pasierb points the finger at a six-level message strategy by Omnicom PR shop Por ter Novelli, and an 18-step creative-review pro cess that requires 194 work ing days to get a 30-second ad on the air. “The campaign is so compli cated, byzantine and going in so many different directions that it is robbed of its effectiveness,” he said.

ONDCP and the Partnership each met with Congressional staff ers last week to outline their strat egies. Lawmakers must approve spending another $180 million on the effort next year.

Some shops that have worked on ONDCP’s campaign, like Young & Rubicam, New York, agree with Pasierb’s assessment, and pulled out of the campaign as a result. “We decided not to continue our relationship because we found the approval pro cess detrimental to creating good advertising,” said Jim Ferguson, Y&R’s president and chief creative officer. “Why does it take only 12 steps to cure someone of alcoholism, but 18 steps to do an ad to prevent someone from becoming a drug user?”

Pasierb’s recommendations to change the strategy and streamline the review process, which the Partnership first suggested to ONDCP in a letter dated Oct. 2, 2000, after its internal study showed the campaign had declined in effectiveness after its first two years, will likely find more receptive ears in a Congress grappling with competing budget priorities.

“I have a hard time believing Congress is going to say we used to get this for free, but now we will start paying for it,” says one Congressional staffer. “That is like sticking your finger in the eye of those ad agencies who are doing this pro bono. If I were them, I would not line up to do more work for this campaign. Not when you get ridiculed like this.”

Meanwhile, ONDCP is expected to name a winner in its ongoing review in early June.