In the next five years, Congress will spend a cool billion on anti-drug advertising--all to buy some time.
WASHINGTON, D.C.--Ed Maibach has been given 100 days to get hip. While the clock ticks, Maibach, director of research for Washington, D.C.'s Porter Novelli, and his team forge ahead on a manic odyssey to design a national media strategy that will steer kids clear of illegal drugs.
Porter Novelli is on the ground floor of the largest social-marketing campaign in the history of this country. Last month, Congress awarded the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) nearly $1 billion for a five-year national anti-drug campaign targeting youth as a small but significant piece of President Clinton's full-scale initiative to stamp out drug sales and addiction. What makes the advertising component so remarkable? For the first time, the government is going to buy media, and a lot of it, rather than rely solely on PSAs and the good graces of the advertising and media industries to donate their talent and airtime. The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, the New York-based nonprofit organization that uses the work of hundreds of agencies, has been enlisted to do all the creative work, which means that much, if not most, of the billion will be used to buy time.
This unprecedented campaign reflects a new era of enlightenment regarding the advertising industry: Suddenly, more branches of the government are reaching out to the ad community and saying: We think what you do works and we want you to help us change attitudes. The activist government of the Clinton administration has fueled all kinds of ad restrictions, much to the chagrin of the alcohol and cigarette makers, but it has also encouraged a bounty of anti-vice ad campaigns, from advertising funds set aside in the Global Cigarette Settlement to this first-time effort at ONDCP. It used to be that the federal government treated advertising as a business to regulate and control. These days, officials on Capitol Hill are saying: We want to stop kids from taking drugs, abusing alcohol and smoking cigarettes. Will you help us? The government is partly motivated by Clinton's belief that advertising works, as well as compelling evidence that when the marketplace was saturated with top-notch public-service ads debunking the mythology of drugs, use among teenagers declined.
Today, drug abuse overall is still down, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, but drug use among the nation's youth in increasing. "Media plays a huge influence in kids lives," says Alan Levitt, senior adviser and chief of the education branch at ONDCP. "They learn norms and risks from the media, even though the family should be the primary influence.We feel that the media could be the quickest way to reverse the trend on drug use."
So PN has to get a grip swiftly on why kids use drugs, and why they stop. The public-relations firm must evaluate research that is often contradictory and look at great creative campaigns that have not stemmed the tide of drug abuse and ask why. PN started the $1 million, 100-day project in mid-September, after winning the competitive bid against undisclosed firms last summer. It is well-suited for the demanding job: PN was established in 1972 on the premise that social goals can be realized through a marketing model. It is known in the Beltway for its campaigns for the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Diabetes Association. The agency's team, spearheaded by senior vice president Maibach and vice presidents Susan Maguire and Lori Ross, must create a communications strategy statement, a prototype paid-advertising media plan--with the help of subcontractor Creative Media of New York--an integrated communications plan and a corporate sponsorship/ entertainment-industry plan. PN must also produce the behemoth request for proposal (RFP) for the big review, a competitive government bid for a general ad agency or media buying service to spend $175 million the first year and $195 million in each of the four years after that. The review process will most likely begin in early 1998, when handmaiden PN has completed its Byzantine task. (ONDCP, which will make the final decision on an agency, says it is precluded from even looking at any agencies until the RFP is completed. No agency is said to have a leg up on this one.)
"We're trying to get kids to reject drug use, and the stakes are high," says Maibach. The consensus among PN, ONDCP and the Partnership is to cull the essential strategy from experts with a variety of backgrounds. Just two weeks ago, they spent two full days at PN headquarters discussing their mission with academics from top universities, consumer product marketers and Beltway policy wonks--people who make a career of disagreeing for the intellectual stimulation it provides. "There was a wide range of opinions," acknowledges Maibach, who holds a doctoral degree in communication research from Stanford University. "We pushed the panel to explain what their opinions were based on--empirical research, qualitative research or experience. In the end, we did reach some consensus."
Later that week, PN triumvirate Maibach, Maguire and Ross visited New York to look at MTV's own market research with teens and preteens and ask the influential network what it might want to bring to the table. ONDCP has big, albeit tentative, plans of buying prime time on all the major networks, on programs such as NBC's Friends and Fox's Beverly Hills 90210 and Party of Five, among many others. For the $175 million the government buys in paid time next year, it is mandated to come up with another $175 million in matching, in-kind donations from broadcasters, magazines and other media outlets across the country. Congress has stipulated that no one can sell time or space to the campaign without making a matching, in-kind donation. From 1999 to 2002, the campaign has to get $195 million in matches each year in a broadcast climate less than conducive to public service.
There are some things all the parties involved know for sure: The campaign will target 9-17-year-olds and their parents nationwide. Ads will appear on TV, in print and outdoor just about everywhere, from Brownsville, Texas, to downtown Detroit, with concentration in areas where drug use is most prevalent. There will be regional differences in ads placed according to the most popular drugs. Elements of the campaign may target 6-8-year-olds as well.
Paid advertising is the nexus of the campaign, and the creative will be provided by the Partnership agencies. However, other agencies may be used for sports marketing, collateral and the Internet. Creative Media in New York is helping to fashion the conceptual media plan that will document what the model will look like on a national scale.
"We're putting together a plan that will have the most impact," says Mickey Marks, senior vice president at Creative Media. "We want to elevate this message with a consistent, critical, coordinated effort." Marks says the media plan will center on several high-profile media events like, perhaps, the Super Bowl. "We're going to put these ads in the same glamorous environment as all the other messages," he explains.
All of this, of course, will be tweaked by the agency that wins the bid, say ONDCP officials.
In the end, every decision made in this lengthy process will have the signature of Gen. Barry McCaffrey, President Clinton's drug czar and head of ONDCP. The billion-dollar anti-drug campaign is only 1 percent of his entire push to drive drugs out of the country, an initiative that includes increased border patrols and enforcement, education and treatment. But McCaffrey is a firm believer in advertising, and he represents a changing consciousness in the bureaucracy of Washington.
"This will be the most scrutinized social-marketing campaign ever," says Alan Levitt, McCaffrey's right-hand man. Levitt has been overseeing government media campaigns for almost 30 years, but he's never been a part of something quite this big. "Nobody has done anything like this," he says. "Kids are bombarded with film, TV and humor. Many of these messages may not glamorize drugs--but they normalize them. Media is such a powerful influence, we want to use it to turn things around."
Drug use among teens decreased from 1988-1991, according to government statistics. During this same time, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America saturated the marketplace with prime-time PSAs (two words that no longer go together). Partnership agencies created edgy work like the legendary fried-egg ad ("This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs"), a spot that has become part of the vernacular.
Yet today, drug use among teens is on the rise again.
ONDCP notes that during the same time, news stories on drugs went way down, as did PSAs.
It is nearly impossible to get a PSA on a major network during prime time, which is why the administration decided to go for broke and pay for its social advertising this time. One of the most controversial challenges the campaign faces is that of in-kind donations. In this boom economy, broadcasters are getting premium rates for all their time slots in many markets such as D.C., New York and Los Angeles, according to D.C. media consultant Dick Leggitt. "It's somewhat anecdotal, but talking to my peers in other markets, there's no room for public-service messages. If it's a choice between a political ad at a discounted rate and Budweiser, they choose Bud."
Community organizations, which depend on PSAs to get their messages out nationwide, are feeling the crunch: Their pro bono spots today languish on shelf space in closets; they run at inopportune times when the target audience is asleep or in school, if they run at all. Congress has attached a stipulation to the money earmarked for the anti-drug campaign that the matching PSAs cannot supplant existing anti-drug messages, a mandate that seems quite impossible to achieve. "We are charged with this very issue," says Maibach. "We don't want to throw fuel on the fire." Maibach is in the throes of devising a plan that offers broadcasters creative ways to match the bought time--apart from a tit-for-tat match.
"We'll do some creative negotiation with broadcasters," agrees Mike Townsend, executive vice president and director of operations at the Partnership. "We're talking to them about programming and news magazines, although we'll probably stay away from news coverage. You don't want to mix church and state. We're looking for after-school movies to count for X in a formula for the match." Part of PN's job is to figure out just how these matches will work, and how creative these negotiations can get. However, it's clear that related programming will count as in-kind donations.
"In our discussions with broadcasters so far, they seem eager to respond with appropriate types of programming," says Maibach. "It's clearly a voluntary exchange; they're telling us how they think it will work best for them and kids as well."
ONDCP's Levitt says the government is reaching out to broadcasters in a number of ways, including trying to influence their depiction of drugs in programming. "I'm encouraged that broadcasters will be supportive of this effort in some way," Levitt says, "whether it is through PSAs, public affairs or programming." In fact, Levitt just attended his first "soap summit" on domestic violence, a powwow among producers, victims and social workers trying to influence how soaps depict domestic violence. Levitt is hoping his office can be involved with a summit on drug abuse in the future.
In the meantime, PN and ONDCP receive dozens of correspondences a week from agencies wanting a piece of the action. "We are far from the stage of deciding whether we are going to use place mats or milk cartons or T-shirts," says Levitt, sounding a touch fatigued. "Anyway, the White House is not going to make those kinds of decisions; we'll leave that to the people we hire in the communications business." He adds he has gotten some legitimate proposals, but it is premature for the office to consider them--in fact, it is illegal for him to do so before the RFP is on the street. "We are precluded from talking to people until we have an RFP," Levitt says. "We encourage any advertising agency to be involved with this project through their corporate clients or through the Partnership."
Congress has demanded that the campaign be evaluated as it evolves; agency contracts will also probably be one year with the possibility of rolling them over. Any agency that participates will be part of a new wave of shops fighting the vices of the 20th century, and getting in on the millennium clean-up. As for PN, the agency is obviously barred from participating in the review, since it is creating the RFP. PN's intense work on this project seems over as soon as it has begun; however, the firm has an eye on a longer relationship with ONDCP, one that would keep them at the helm of corporate donations for the next few years. "We hope to stay a part of this team," says PN's Susan Maguire, "for some time to come."