What South Dakota’s meth ads say about the sorry state of antidrug PSAs

Laugh all you want, but there doesn’t seem to be any consensus on what kind of ads actually work.

The most-talked-about brand in America so far this week is . . . meth.

Specifically, South Dakota meth.

Yesterday, Governor Kristi Noem launched a new antidrug awareness campaign, aimed at getting all South Dakotans to work together to help solve the state’s growing problem with the drug.

So far, so normal.

What made this campaign grab national headlines and start trending on Twitter, though, is just how Noem’s campaign went about doing that. Namely, the tagline: “Meth. We’re on it.”

Obviously it’s meant to convey both the scope of the problem—a lot of people are on meth!—and a statement of purpose to get “on it” to work on a solution, and Minneapolis-based ad agency Broadhead, which created the campaign, said in its proposal to the state that the tagline “I’m on Meth” is meant to create “a movement for all South Dakotans to take an active role in keeping their state a great place to live.”

But most people just thought it was a funny way to make it sound like the whole state was on drugs.

It spread so quickly that Governor Noem was soon on Twitter herself defending the ads and the campaign’s effectiveness.

Whether you think this is a well-meaning attention grab or a hilariously viral accident, antidrug advertising is far from an exact science. In fact, most of it just doesn’t work, whether it’s considered a great ad—like this Grand Effie-winning spot from 1993—or not. A 2006 Government Accountability Office study basically called the White House’s then-$100 million antidrug advertising campaign a bust. A 2015 report on 19 different studies assessing antidrug campaign effectiveness found decidedly mixed results. The debate between educational and informative ads and those based on scare tactics is ongoing, with no concrete proof of either’s efficacy, resulting in a merry-go-round of ad cycles seemingly rotating between the two.

“I’m on meth,” then, is a perfect microcosm for the general state of antidrug PSAs, because no one can agree if it’s any good—or if it’ll actually work.

The South Dakota campaign avoided meth horror stories, or trying to warn people of the drug’s dangers, instead acknowledging the problem and enlisting everyone to try and help solve it. On one hand, the tagline does reek of calculated virality, betting on the social sphere’s mob mentality and irresistible urge to meme. On the other, this is also the state that in a 2014 campaign to promote safe driving on icy roads gave us the slogan “Don’t jerk and drive.

Critics also point to the cost, which is reportedly $449,000. Now, that sounds like a lot of money, but in Adland, when it comes to a campaign that includes a TV spot, website, billboards, and posters, it’s pretty standard stuff. Earlier this year, Arizona dropped $400,000 on a new anti-opioid campaign, and the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has cost more than $1.5 billion since 1998.

What’s your favorite antidrug PSA? How many can you even remember? There are only a handful that have actually stuck with me over the years. This is your brain on drugs, obviously. “I learned it from watching you!” And then this Australian spot, that eases you in with a warm, mellow, hey-we’re-all-friends-here vibe until . . .

KABLAMMO.

Did you see that coming? (Neither did he . . . sorry.) Can you imagine watching that stoned without knowing the twist? It’s like that Subway life journey (or that Renault love story) but, uh, much, much darker. Scary? Sure! But according to a number of studies, scare tactics may get our attention, but they don’t ultimately change our behavior.

Montana launched a much-lauded antimeth campaign back in 2005 that used graphic portrayals and scare tactics, but despite the campaign touting positive results, an independent review found that there was actually an “increase in the percentage of teenagers who reported that using meth is not a risky behavior; teenagers were four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use; teenagers were more likely to report that taking heroin and cocaine is not risky; and up to 50% of teenagers reported that the graphic ads exaggerate the risks of using meth.” That campaign expanded and even included ads directed by Darren Aronofsky.

Scare tactics have been utilized since the 1980s, and even President Trump is harking back to that approach. When launching the White House’s anti-opioid campaign last year, he said, “That’s the least expensive thing we can do, where you scare them from ending up like the people in the commercials. And we’ll make them very, very bad commercials. We’ll make them pretty unsavory situations.”

But Catasys chief medical officer Omar Manejwala told ThinkProgress, “Historically, programs that have sought to scare people into avoiding drugs have either been ineffective or had the opposite effect. Effective approaches to adolescent prevention generally focus on skill building, developmental factors, community, and environmental contributors and policies.”

Viewed through that lens, most antidrug PSAs appear to be vanity projects for the ad agencies and governments involved, reassurance that they’re doing something to fight the problem. South Dakota at least didn’t try to scare us, and maybe some of that laughter will lead to the kind of awareness that encourages the kind of measures Manejwala highlighted.

Questioning the sanity of “I’m on meth” is certainly a valid point, but a broader look at the lack of effectiveness of drug PSAs overall—and the amounts of money being spent on campaigns—would make anyone feel like they’re taking crazy pills.


About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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