The Ground War Against Meth

Methamphetamines have hit Tennessee hard. Incidents at labs where the drug is cooked using ingredients found at the nearest pharmacy reached 850 last year, including explosions and seizures, making the state the third highest in the country to experience the scourge, according to Drug Enforcement Administration figures.

When the Partnership for a Drug-Free America asked The Buntin Group, a small Nashville agency, to develop a pro-bono campaign to fight meth, shop officials there knew they needed more powerful weapons than just TV and print ads to reach the state’s more rural areas. “We wanted to turn entire towns into messages about the effects of meth to rally the community against the drug,” says agency president and ecd Jeffrey Buntin Jr. “Our [research] led us to realize the collateral damage meth does not just to the user, but to the air, the water, the school system, the real estate market and the police force. This stuff can do wholesale damage, if not shut down entire communities.”

The elements the agency crafted, which will begin appearing in Tennessee communities in July, take a guerrilla-style, in-your-face, everyone-is-affected approach. Picture a shack in the middle of a school parking lot with a sign that says: “If you can read this, you’re already dead. … The total number of meth labs is unknown. What we do know is that they can be anywhere and often explode.”

There is an estimated $250,000 in donated media time and production costs for the campaign, according to the PDFA. The Buntin Group will place 210 displays around the state, including cardboard images of police officers in parks, with copy that reads: “This is a cardboard cutout of someone who could help you. But we have to spend millions on meth addicts and related damages. It’s infecting you right now.” And a spray-painted, graffiti-style mural will be placed on the side of a building where garbage is kept. The nose of the character in the picture is strategically placed near the real garbage on the ground so it looks like the trash is being snorted, one way users take meth.

The campaign’s tagline, “Infected by meth,” will appear along with a biohazard sign. The biohazard theme will be picked up in other displays that show how drinking water becomes polluted when meth cooks dump toxic waste on the ground. “Advertising works when the message is put in the place that is the most relevant to the product,” says Buntin cd Pat Harris. “It was important for us to imagine ourselves in these communities and to put ourselves in their daily lives. How am I, at this point in time, being affected by meth whether I have anything to do with the drug or not?”

The campaign includes TV, print and radio ads by Buntin that show the effects of the drug. In one radio spot, a high truck driver plows through a restaurant. It’s also part of a national anti-meth effort launched by the Partnership last November, with work from JWT New York and Leo Burnett Chicago. Meth is a growing problem, with nationwide treatment admissions rising 11 percent in 2004, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Mike Townsend, the Partnership’s evp and director of meth demand reduction programs, says the drug is as addictive as crack cocaine and heroin, with typical users between 18 and 25. One in four teens report they have friends who use meth, one in five have been offered it and only half see a risk in trying it once or twice, according to Partnership data.

“The worrisome thing is we are now seeing meth creeping into the teen party scene the way ecstasy did,” Townsend says. “Meth was once pigeonholed as a poor person’s drug that teens wouldn’t bother using, but now there are signs it is becoming more accepted.”

Christine Rasmuson, the Partnership’s deputy director of creative development, says her group had expected a more traditional out-of-home, billboard and bus-shelter type of campaign from the Nashville agency. “But when they came to us with their first round [of work], they blew the doors off the Creative Review Committee,” Rasmuson says. “I never saw a CRC meeting where there were 30-plus creative ideas presented and the committee just kept saying, ‘Great, keep going.’ They came in with their Southern charm and wowed a group of mostly New York elite creative minds.”

Ruth Wooden, president of New York-based public opinion research group Public Agenda and former Ad Council president, says it is very difficult to communicate the idea that there are serious consequences for communities when resources are diverted to problems caused by drugs. “This approach really makes the point quickly, and with huge impact,” Wooden says. “It will definitely create a word-of-mouth buzz that will bring people to look right at it. I also imagine it will generate tons of free press in newspapers and other mainstream media. But mostly, it is a community message right in the middle of where people live—like getting a sermon right in church.”