ADWEEK FEATURE: The General’s $1 Billion Gamble

Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the U.S. government’s drug czar, arrives at a Washington
press conference precisely on time. Federal marshals–insurance against death threats issued by foreign drug lords–trail McCaffrey like cats, skulking along the sidelines as he approaches the podium on a swatch of lawn in the shadow of the Capitol. He’s here to discuss drug production in Appalachia, a growing problem unknown to most Americans. While others pull desperately at their collars and ties on a humid spring day that promises another steamy D.C. summer, McCaffrey, attired in a natty suit, displays his years of military rigor. The retired four-star general does not betray any trace of discomfort. As McCaffrey speaks about drug production inside America’s borders, congressmen and aides around him make desperate, preening gestures, slapping damp hair back in place. The general retains his cool.
This is the superficial stuff of leadership, and McCaffrey has it, a way of inspiring instant respect in those around him. In the bureaucratic trench warfare that consumes so much of the daily attention and energy of Washington officialdom, McCaffrey, who was wounded three times in his 39-year military career, knows not to sweat the small stuff. That’s just as well, for he is about to lead the largest communications effort ever on behalf of the federal government, a colossal $1 billion anti-drug media campaign targeting kids. McCaffrey has persuaded the White House and Congress to pay for a four-year, national TV ad blitz that, starting next month, will place its anti-drug messages in prime-time, rather than broadcast to a few insomniacs in the middle of the night. Alarmed by recent findings that minors’ drug use is on the rise again, McCaffrey considers the campaign intrinsic to his goal of reducing drug abuse among preteens and teens by 50 percent in 10 years.
It’s not the first time Uncle Sam has turned to Madison Avenue, of course. Congress has appropriated funding for advertising the U.S. Census and recruitment for the armed forces. But never before has Washington spent this kind of money, on this type of effort. Some might regard McCaffrey’s social marketing campaign, however laudable, as an expensive shot in the dark. Social marketing remains controversial, and there are no shortage of critics who claim it just doesn’t work. If advertising is smoke and mirrors, the reasoning goes, then social marketing is undiluted fairy dust. Even some advertising lobbyists privately doubt on the worth of counter marketing efforts, unless there is new information to be offered, such as the Surgeon General’s 1964 report linking smoking and lung cancer.
McCaffrey’s gambit will help decide whether other social programs–from AIDS prevention to teen pregnancy–can tap the government for advertising dollars. If it works, it will open the floodgate to all kinds of social marketing programs funded with taxpayer money. If it fails, along with other efforts in drug reduction, it will be remembered as McCaffrey’s billion-dollar mistake.
Yet McCaffrey displays no qualms. The 56-year-old official loves advertising. Although he has never worked in the trade, McCaffrey is as sold on advertising as any Madison Avenue account manager. He doesn’t just think it works, he says, he knows it works. “It was always in the back of my mind to create an advertising campaign” as part of government’s anti-drug drive, McCaffrey says, sitting in his office located a few blocks from the White House. The room is austere, the decor (if you can call it that) consists mostly of a few army hats and a couple of photos of McCaffrey with President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
McCaffrey is the government’s point man in the crusade against drugs. In the two years since he was sworn in as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), he has been widely credited by many members of Congress for bringing legitimacy and leadership to the administration’s $17 billion anti-drug initiative. Since taking the job, his life has been locked in overdrive. Any given week might take him from Phoenix House, a well-known treatment center in New York, to staged burnings of seized coca crops in Colombia, and back to congressional hearings and meetings on Capitol Hill. McCaffrey usually begins his grueling daily schedule with a brisk run, which, besides reading, is his only diversion.
Staffers who have watched the government’s anti-drug fervor vacillate over the years since the ONDCP was established in 1989 credit McCaffrey with reinvigorating the 150-employee agency. McCaffrey himself jokes that he was the natural candidate for drug czar because he was the only confirmable nominee who would accept the post. In fact, he sailed through confirmation hearings in February, 1996 and was approved unanimously by the Senate.
Several people, including former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, have been given credit for coming up with the idea of actually paying big bucks for a social marketing campaign, instead of relying on broadcasters’ charity and public service announcements. Cuomo called President Clinton in the middle of his first term in the White House with the idea of using public money for anti-drug ads, which broadcasters had always run gratis. But the $1 billion paid-media blizzard that will roll out nationally is the brainstorm of McCaffrey and his team.
The idea in part grew out of McCaffrey’s experience during his last military posting as head of the U.S. Armed Forces Southern Command in Panama in 1995. It was clear that Washington’s reliance upon border patrols and arrests had failed to do much to stanch the flow of drugs into the United States. So McCaffrey made the rounds of nonprofits, think tanks and treatment centers, asking how to reduce the demand for drugs. Again and again, he got the same response: advertising had to be part of the equation.
“The minute you start paying money, everything is better,” explains McCaffrey. “This is the ultimate test. We have to run this like 3M. Congress is not going to give us a grade for style. By the end of the second year, we better see some effect on attitudes.” If they don’t see a significant change in attitudes, will the feds abandon the project, as some have suggested? “No,” says McCaffrey. “We are going to have a five-year run at this. By the way, it’s going to work, no question.”
Next month McCaffrey’s convictions will be put to the test, when the ONDCP’s campaign kicks off its national run. To do so, the feds have teamed up with the Partnership for a Drug- Free America (PDFA), the nonprofit organization that has produced PSAs for years through its roster of ad agencies. While government bureaucrats will not write or produce any spots, the buck ultimately stops at McCaffrey’s desk: He has the power to kill any spot he considers inappropriate. The ONDCP will also appoint the selection committee that will determine which media-buying firm will place as much as $195 million worth of ads annually.
For the PDFA, McCaffrey’s initiative arrived at a critical juncture. After flying high in the late ’80s, during the ’90s its PSAs have been all but pushed off the tube during prime time while teen drug use began to rebound. “The media economics changed, and we saw PSAs decline,” says Jim Burke, the PDFA’s chairman. Though some broadcasters and the National Association of Broadcasters tell Adweek that PSAs have not declined, the environment has been mightily squeezed, according to the PDFA. In hot media markets, most commercial slots are filled with high-paying advertisers, leaving little room for PSA inventory. And the slots that remain are often filled by the networks’ PSAs which tout their own stars and shows. “We tried to browbeat [the broadcasters] into offering us more time and they said they would do more,” says Burke. “But they were pressed by the bottom line.”
No more. With taxpayers’ money, for the first time anti-drug spots will be placed in prime-time slots instead of collecting cobwebs on broadcasters’ video tape racks. So far, Zenith Media in New York has placed the 12-city Phase I pilot. Working with a plan originally devised by Creative Media, also of New York, Zenith has consistently shown the ads in the hottest, most popular spots and events, including the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl. Furthermore, Zenith has negotiated matches of one donated ad for each paid commercial, and many broadcasters have shown the two spots back-to-back during popular series like Seinfeld.
The initial response has been strong. Local anti-drug coalitions say they have been deluged by requests for information from parents and teachers. The ads have been credited with increasing calls to anti-drug telephone hotlines 25 percent, according to the ONDCP. Zenith will also place the $100 million Phase II national rollout, and is considered a strong contender for the four-year, $800 million Phase III prize, insiders say. Ogilvy & Mather and McCann-Erickson, both of New York, and Western International Advocacy Group, Los Angeles, have also shown interest in participating in the review, among others.
“This is the biggest communications initiative in the history of the government,” says Rich Hamilton, chief executive officer of Zenith Media. “How many advertisers are there in excess of $100 million a year? Not many,” he adds. “Let’s look at New York, where mere $30-$40-million accounts are fought tooth and nail.” A decision in the media review is expected by September.
Some ads on the air have already garnered attention, particularly the revamped “Frying Pan” spot created by New York agency Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners. The ad plays off the PDFA’s most recognizable and much parodied “This is your brain on drugs” ad of the late ’80s. In the old spot, the brain of an addict was likened to a sizzling fried egg. In the new one, a grungy Winona Ryder look-alike says, “This is your brain. This is your brain on heroin,” as she smashes the egg with the frying pan. She then proceeds to destroy the whole kitchen as she explains, “This is what your family goes through, and your friends, and your money and your job…” The edgier, retooled “Frying Pan,” which aims to be hip, has reignited some of the buzz that PDFA enjoyed during its heyday.
McCaffrey could face an uphill fight as he labors to cut drug usage among kids in half by the year 2007. Teen drug abuse has been increasing in recent years; according to best estimates, 9.5 percent of American kids aged 12-17 use drugs monthly. While the overall campaign target audience consists of kids 9-18, McCaffrey has made it clear that he wants the emphasis to be on middle-school kids aged 11-13–the preuser and occasional user–in order to reach them before their drug use gets out of hand. Twenty-five percent of the paid ad plan will be spent on these preteens; another 25 percent will be spent targeting 9-10 year olds and older teens. The remaining 50 percent of the media budget will target parents and other adult influences in hopes of reaching kids through them. Nearly two-thirds of the money will be spent on television; the remainder will be split among print, in-school, radio and interactive advertising.
Yet many essential details of the $1 billion campaign remain to be hammered out. How many new ads will be produced? Which of the existing ads in the PDFA inventory are on strategy? And if kids’ drug usage should actually decline over the next decade, how can anyone attribute that to the advertising push as opposed to other anti-drug efforts? ONDCP officials admit they are drawing the campaign’s map one step at a time. “We are learning as we go,” says Alan Levitt, senior adviser on educational issues at ONDCP. “This has never been done before.”
There are few precedents in the short history of social marketing. Many observers label the large, sustained PSA campaign developed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which dovetailed with the Advertising Council’s “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” program, as one initiative that worked. The drunk-driving campaigns, which are ongoing, have been large, messy projects fueled by grassroots support and news attention.
“There is pretty substantial evidence that there is quite a drop in binge drinking,” says Lloyd Johnsten, senior research scientist at the University of Michigan, who has advised McCaffrey and the PDFA. “A lot of social marketing has not worked because it did not have the media weight behind it,” he explains. “This is complicated social behavior. [A campaign] requires a great degree of sophistication.” But Johnsten will not say that advertising alone did the trick to reduce drunk driving, pointing out that the campaign was bolstered by community efforts and media attention.
Even some ad types express reservations. “You have to be very careful with this,” says Jeff Goodby, co-chair and creative director of Goodby, Silverstein & Partners in San Francisco. Goodby has not only created spots for PDFA, but is also a member of the organization’s creative review committee. “You can’t take it as a single entity. Some anti-drug ads work. Some–probably the majority–don’t. The best stuff [PDFA] has done has been very carefully researched.”
Goodby says it is each volunteer agency’s responsibility to conduct the proper research and focus groups for its spots, even if they are working pro bono. All that the agencies receive from PDFA is a strategic brief and a target audience, then they’re on their own. For the GS&P spot “Long Way Home,” a moving tribute to kids who go out of their way to avoid being hassled by drug dealers, Goodby staffers talked to inner-city kids. “They said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t give us this just-say-no crap. You should see what I have to do just to get home.'”
As far as McCaffrey is concerned, advertising isn’t about research, focus groups and target demographics, but about reaching people’s guts. His position is based on his conviction that advertising was critical to saving the institution closest to his soul: the U.S. Army.
Born into an Army family, the son of a now-retired lieutenant general, McCaffrey served four combat tours in his military career, the last during the Persian Gulf War, when he led the 125-mile assault into the Euphrates valley where his soldiers cornered Saddam Hussein’s elite Republican Guards. But in the late 1960s, he was a junior officer back from the hell of two tours in Vietnam and witnessing the disintegration of the military before his eyes. “We were saddled with our frustration over the war,” McCaffrey recalls. “The size of the army plummeted; we were in our lowest mental, physical and spiritual shape.” About one-third of the soldiers were regularly taking drugs, and another third were occasional users. “We saw gang rapes, crime and insubordination,” he remembers.
What pulled the U.S. Army out of its self-destructive plunge? A damn good ad campaign, according to McCaffrey. In fact, it was his experience with the “Be all that you can be” positioning in the early 1970s created by N.W. Ayer & Partners of New York that sold him on the power of advertising.
The Army pulled McCaffrey, then a captain, out of his doctoral studies at American University to help pull the military up by its bootstraps. Part of his job was to assess the perception of leadership in the ranks, and while McCaffrey did not play a big role in the agency’s campaign, he saw the results first hand. “We went to N.W. Ayer and the campaign worked spectacularly,” he recalls.
Ayer’s campaign, which ran throughout the ’80s and has been recently retooled by Young & Rubicam, managed to turn around the public image of the soldier from a juvenile without options to an ambitious, career-minded young striver. By the early 1980s, according to one Pentagon official, enlisted men were of a higher caliber than the sergeants supervising them because the military was attracting vastly better qualified personnel than it was a decade earlier. Being a soldier went from No. 27 among desired occupations for kids–two spots behind sanitation worker–to among the top five. Of course, the transition was accompanied by massive recruitment efforts and an enormous increase in pay scales, he adds. But it couldn’t have worked without advertising, McCaffrey believes.
“He knew to turn the Army around you had to educate, lead, teach and reverse our negative image and recruit good people through advertising,” says Jim McDonough, ONDCP director of strategy. “He wants to duplicate that turnaround with drugs,” he says.
McCaffrey has had a remarkably smooth time selling the rest of Washington on his advertising idea. He got the president and the rest of the Cabinet on board almost immediately. But Congress, which would actually have to appropriate the money, was more problematic. Even though McCaffrey’s role is by definition nonpartisan (he has never revealed his political affiliation), as Clinton’s choice to head the ONDCP he needed help forging ties with the Republican leadership.
Fortunately, McCaffrey had already begun to forge an alliance with Burke, a registered Republican. Together, the general and the PDFA chairman convinced Congress that the $1 billion campaign was not only a bipartisan effort, but also sound politics and sound business. Yet even Burke, the former chairman of Johnson & Johnson best remembered for steering the firm through the Tylenol-poisoning tragedy of the mid-1980s, expresses something akin to amazement at McCaffrey’s iron will. “He asked for more than I ever thought of,” Burke says. “I wanted at least three years of paid advertising. He came back and said we’ve got five. That’s how he works.”
Congress, as it turned out, did not need much convincing. “Drug use is still rising among kids and it’s vitally important that we reach them as early as possible,” explains Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who was a key backer of the plan, along with Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Spencer Abraham (R-Minn.) and Rep. Rob Portman (R-Ohio). “Advertising is a key way to reach kids and change their attitudes about drugs,” he says. An aide to Biden elaborates: “It was not the research that drove us; it was the idea, intuitively, that this would work. We followed the business paradigm–more marketing equals more impact–and a belief in advertising.”
Not every politician, however, was eager to go along. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) challenged McCaffrey to direct a larger share of his $1 billion budget toward African American-owned media, but McCaffrey, sources say, declined. The issue remains under discussion.
No one doubts that on matters of drug policy, McCaffrey calls it as he sees it. And he commands the president’s ear. He recently convinced Clinton to make a stunning 11th-hour reversal regarding publicly funded needle exchanges. Clinton was ready to endorse such a program, but McCaffrey was dead set that funding clean needles for addicts sent the wrong message to kids and drug users, even though research shows that it reduces the transmission of the AIDS virus. After a last-minute meeting between McCaffrey and the president aboard Air Force One, however, Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala, a proponent of needle exchanges, was forced to announce the idea was dead. The decision stunned many Democrats and pundits, and led two members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Waters, to call for McCaffrey’s resignation.
Sources close to McCaffrey say the intense media glare over his pivotal role in the episode took him aback. It also has alienated some grassroots activists fighting drugs on the street. But more significantly, the general has shunned the harsh rhetoric that has typified the political debate on drugs. He has called for more and better treatment facilities–not criminalization–as the first and best defense against drugs. He also has spent time at treatment facilities talking to addicts, asking them to trace their experiences from recreational user to addict.
And unlike many in Washington, McCaffrey refuses to pander to the “Drug War” hype that is so carelessly tossed around whenever politicians confront an open microphone. “I’ve seen war, and I know what war is,” he states emphatically, his dark eyebrows furrowed. “This is not a war. Who is the enemy? The mother addicted to pills? The kids smoking marijuana every day?” Instead, he likens the drug problem to a cancer, and its symptoms as malignancies. Not surprisingly, the PDFA also has scratched war imagery from its drawing pads. “I’m very happy to let him define what a war is,” says Doria Steedman, the PDFA’s creative director.
Relations between the federal bureaucrats and the creatives involved in the $1 billion campaign have been about as smooth as can reasonably be expected. Burke and McCaffrey share a strong personal chemistry that has helped them find harmony in a sometimes tenuous duet. “I feel fatherly toward him,” Burke says of McCaffrey, who is 17 years his junior. Yet both men acknowledge the unavoidable tension between the accountability of the federal government versus the creative independence of the PDFA. Burke has expressed concern about politicizing the process of making anti-drug ads, as well as hurting other organizations that rely on PSAs. McCaffrey has assured Burke that the partnership does not face the loss of its creative integrity because of a congressman or constituent offended by an ad.
“At no time [during the test pilot] has anyone called us and said we’ve got to get such and such off the air because the PTA in Boise called,” says Steedman. “That bodes well.”
That’s not to say it’s been tension-free. The PDFA’s work will be scrutinized more than ever before. Its spots have long been studied in rough form by its creative committee, which includes major New York figures such as Tony Angotti, Andy Berlin and Helayne Spivak, among others. Now that it’s working for the feds, the ads will also be reviewed by a panel of behavioral scientists and sometimes pre-tested to see if they work. Testing was hard for the PDFA to accept. Its members have always had informal input from psychologists and health educators, but never had to answer to them. The partnership swallowed the stipulation for the sake of the campaign.
Some ONDCP staffers have expressed concern over whether the PDFA, which only has about 30 employees, has the muscle to go through the government’s more rigorous review system. “We have the manpower for this,” responds Steedman. “Our mission remains the same, and we have worked very hard to preserve the integrity of this process.” Others inside the government’s effort wonder why ONDCP didn’t go with a single agency, where it could wield more control and assure a more uniformed look to the campaign. “Why didn’t we just go to Spike Lee’s agency or Saatchi & Saatchi? It’s a fair question,” says an ONDCP official. “I think in the end, McCaffrey truly believes in the partnership.”
McCaffrey does not intend to limit his reach to advertising. The $1 billion campaign is merely the first step toward changing the entire media’s portrayal of drug usage. “What do kids do when they come home?” he asks rhetorically. “They watch TV.” McCaffrey has backed the opening of a West Coast branch of the ONDCP in the hopes of influencing TV programmers and studio executives to “denormalize” drug use in their shows. He has met with studio moguls over lunch and displays a keen interest in pop culture. As part of what the ONDCP calls its “entertainment component,” officials plan to hold conferences with writers and producers to discuss the media’s depiction of drugs.
Despite his Hollywood forays, it’s nearly impossible to imagine McCaffrey making the scene at an industry hot spot like The Viper Room. His own family life appears so stable and anchored it is seemingly out of another byone era. He has been married to Jill Ann McCaffrey, the national chairwoman for the Armed Forces Emergency Services of the American Red Cross, for 33 years. He has two daughters, one an intensive care nurse, the other a secondary-school teacher, and a son, who, in the family tradition, is an Army infantry major.
McCaffrey’s campaign will be watched intently both inside and outside the Beltway over the next few years. There’s no shortage of interested parties lobbying for their own counter-advertising initiatives. Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) proposed tobacco legislation has a $750 million anti-tobacco campaign attached to it. Some states are also embarking on anti-tobacco campaigns: Florida has launched a $70 million effort paid for by its settlement with cigarette manufacturers.
Alcohol and tobacco abuse pose a political dilemma for the ONDCP, McCaffrey acknowledges. And outside agencies might well try to meddle in the course of the campaign. “Everybody in every agency in the federal government has an opinion” about how to curb substance abuse, says one official close to the campaign. “But they don’t remotely know anything about advertising.” One way to spread some of the advertising pie around without splintering its focus might be to incorporate other issues in the match.
If the $1 billion campaign delivers on its promise, you can add teen pregnancy and literacy to the long list of social marketing campaigns under development. By the millennium, the government could become a bigger advertiser than Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble combined.
But first, McCaffrey has to show some real changes–not only in kids’ attitudes toward drugs, but in their behavior. “This has to work,” McCaffrey says for the last time. Then he’s off and out his office door again, leaving his minions in his wake. Followed by his bodyguards, he remains very much a moving target, fighting teen drug abuse with a warrior’s wits, a father’s heart and the tools of an ad man.