Government Probes Survey On ONDCP Ads’ Effectiveness

The White House’s antidrug media campaign still can’t escape its troubled past.

A Government Accountability Office probe launched in January has now forced Office of National Drug Control Policy officials to put on hold plans to hire a new contractor to measure the effectiveness of its antidrug campaign. That means there is no tool to measure the campaign’s value at a time when lawmakers will begin budget negotiations for next year. While the campaign’s current budget of $120 million is the lowest it has ever been, lawmakers are considering further cuts.

This is the latest in a series of setbacks, which included the convictions of two top agency execs for overbilling the government on the campaign.

GAO confirmed that it was studying the Westat survey, named after the Rockville, Md., research firm that was awarded the contract when the campaign first began in 1998. Since then, the government has spent about $42 million on a survey that has been a constant thorn in ONDCP’s side because critics charge that the methodology is flawed. The survey has concluded that the campaign raises awareness among parents but has done little to alter teen drug use.

ONDCP stands to lose no matter what conclusion the GAO makes, said people familiar with the campaign. As one observer put it, “If the GAO finds that Westat is a piece of crap, then ONDCP has wasted $42 million. If the report says Westat has somehow found the holy grail of advertising cause and effect, then the campaign is not working by that measure.”

Critics charge that Westat did not start measuring the campaign’s effectiveness until nearly 18 months after the launch, so the baseline is off. Westat once reported that the campaign contributed to an increase in marijuana use among teenage girls, a finding which captured media attention. When the campaign changed its target audience and creative was directed at 11- to 15-year-olds, Westat continued to measure the old target of 9- to 11-year-olds and was unable to measure the new target.

This recent GAO report grew out of a request by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., to examine all of the contracts that were part of the media campaign, including ads, public relations, evaluation and others.

ONDCP’s current campaign, “Voices of Teens,” is a series of testimonials by independent filmmakers. First work by the campaign’s new agency, Foote Cone & Belding, New York, will break in the fall. (WPP Group’s Ogilvy & Mather was the previous agency.)

Laurie Ekstrand, GAO’s director of the homeland security and justice team, said it will likely take several months before GAO issues its report. “The GAO was critical of the evaluation method previously,” she said.

ONDCP representative Tom Riley declined to comment on the GAO report. He did say, “We are waiting until we get clarity on where we are” to reissue the RFP for a new contractor to evaluate the campaign.

In the past, the media campaign has fared better in the House, where Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has been a supporter. In the Senate, lawmakers have been less tolerant of the scandals that have plagued the campaign. (Former Ogilvy executives Shona Seifert and Thomas Early were found guilty of plotting to overbill the campaign to cover a $3 million revenue shortfall on the business. Seifert and Early could each receive up to five years in prison when they are sentenced next month.)

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, for example, is not convinced that the campaign is getting the results it should.

While the president has requested the same funding for the campaign next year, other programs under drug czar John Walters—such as law enforcement efforts—face stiff cuts. Some Capitol Hill insiders worry that the campaign’s media budget might be reallocated to restore other ONDCP programs. “The money will flow to programs you can see a direct benefit from,” one Capitol Hill staffer said. “It is hard to get people to articulate how their community benefits from a national media campaign because it is hard to measure.”

ONDCP’s Riley argues that the latest independent drug research shows marijuana use among teens is declining. The National Institute on Drug Abuse’s annual “Monitoring the Future” survey, released in December, reported a 6 percent drop in drug use among teens since the previous year, but it does not directly measure the effects of the media campaign. “When things are going well is not the time to cut [the campaign],” Riley said. “The campaign creates a huge bang for the buck.”

Should the campaign’s budget fall below $120 million, lawmakers are considering doing a more regional campaign and focusing only on teens as the target audience, instead of parents and teens. “Can it be a national campaign below a certain level? Maybe not,” said a Capitol Hill source. “Can it talk to both parents and kids? Maybe not. But one thing I don’t want people to think is it’s $120 million or nothing.”

But that is exactly what some lawmakers have in mind. “With the dramatically lower request for law enforcement, it may be harder to sustain the media campaign and prevention programs,” the Capitol Hill staffer said. “There will be a tipping point. If members think it is much below $120 million and you can’t get the saturation you want to change people’s minds on drugs, they may just drop the whole thing.”