U.S. APG-ACCOUNT PLANNING AWARDS – The Finalists: San Francisco AIDS Foundation–Youth Needle Exchange Streetsigns

At J. Walter Thompson, in San Francisco, creating ads for the Youth Needle Exchange project, run in part by the San Francisco AIDS Foundation, proved to be a tricky endeavor.
Needle exchange is legal for adults, but it becomes murky when it involves youths. We couldn’t state clearly what or who the communication was for and, to add to the challenge, we had a narrow and elusive audience to reach.
There are approximately 700 drug-injecting youths in San Francisco. Many are transient and have had a difficult upbringing. They have nothing–only a habit that sometimes forces them into street prostitution.
Occasionally, these kids hang out at the Larkin Street Youth Center, where they can get cleaned up or get advice. We started by helping out at the center and cautiously tried to get to know some of the kids. Next, we helped at the clandestine youth needle-exchange sites. They were quick hit-and-drop places, due to the potential police hassle. Word went out, we hit the site, the kids get the “works” and vanish before the cops came.
Having made contact, we now needed to listen. Focus groups or in-depth interviews were virtually impossible. Long silences, uncomfortable shuffling and posturing would have been the most common results. So we decided on “friendship depths,” a conversation in which street kids we hoped to talk to sat with a friend.
The questions were asked and, instead of answering directly, the respondent would usually turn and discuss an answer with the friend. Often the friend was also an intravenous drug user, so we were getting rich information from both sources. After a while they relaxed, opened up and helped us mine their views on advertising, language and lives. (We weren’t allowed to pay anyone for participating. The wages were pizza.)
We learned our audience was bright and cynical and hated corporations and advertising. Any messages must be targeted at them, but they didn’t want to be told what to do. Suggestion had the greatest chance of success, and any effort to reach them had to be real. They wanted no clichƒs. The only language that would work was the vernacular of the drug culture.
But there was yet another problem How do you reach someone with no magazine subscriptions, no television, no home? Since the street is their home, bus shelters were the media. The idea was to shoot everyday scenes of San Francisco and change the street signs to convey a message, “from youth needle exchange.”
The viewer had to work out the message. This, we hoped, would increase involvement and provide a small high when piecing the message together, or “getting it.” We opted for five messages:
“Is your rig new?”
“Dull points leave scars”
“Used ones can’t be trusted”
“Always use new works”
“Sharing can kill u”
To increase signaling of the subject, we came up with NXCH as a “code” for needle exchange. We also included a free telephone number:
The audience felt the ads were “cool” and treated them as intelligent individuals–talking with them, not at them. Over the media period, there were 347 telephone calls and a 225 percentage increase in the number of needles exchanged at the NXCH sites.

Derek Gordon, Dir., Communications

Mark Tall, Assoc. Planning Dir.
Barbara Wingate, Planning Dir.
U-Cef Hanjani, Senior Art Dir.