What can ads do for addiction?

Published: May. 8, 2018 at 3:36 PM CDT
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Congress may once again turn to television in the fight against addiction.

Politicians on the left and the right are calling for an anti-addiction ad campaign aimed at the opioid epidemic. The airwaves of history are littered with previous anti-drug efforts - some of which had the opposite of the intended effect.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) said Congress ought to fund a new campaign - assuming it can learn from costly mistakes of the past, like 'Just Say No'.

"That didn't work very well," he said, "but when there was a real focus and when communities and government listened to the experts on anti-smoking we were able in a whole lot of ways to dramatically drop the rate of smoking in this country."

So, if the United States does fund new advertising aimed at addiction, what should it look like? We turned to advertising and addiction experts to find out if there's a recipe for success and failure. Two iconic ads serve as evidence of both.

"This is your brain," says a man in his kitchen while holding an egg. He proceeds to crack it over a frying pan, and as it sizzles, he turns back to the camera to say, "this is your brain on drugs."

Wendy Melillo, a professor who studies advertising at American University, said the ad is an example to follow more than three decades later. "The spot was so simple and so effective," she said.

Another anti-drug ad from that generation hasn't aged well. A young boy walks into a room. A teen tries to convince him to try marijuana. The tyke turns him down, and the teens friends leave as well.

Patty McCarthy Metcalf, executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, said it fell flat because it demeans the struggle of addiction. "If it was that easy, we would stop," she said.

Melillo said the 'Just Say No Campaign' tested well with adults, but it didn't resonate with the target audience: teens. She said telling teens what to do is a good way to get them to do the opposite, and anti-drug campaigners need to keep that in mind.

She said ad campaigns ought learn from Scruff McGruff, ads that became so popular they're now parodied in GEICO commercials. Melillo said the Crime Dog's success as a public service announcement stems from its ability to point the audience to a next step.

In the 90's that meant a mailing address to ask for a free magazine, now Melillo said every PSA should provide a web address.

Most importantly though according to Melillo, a successful campaign needs to capture the audience's attention, and keep it. Studies have shown the benefits of anti-smoking ads diminish when campaigns come off the air, so Melillo argues any effort needs at least a three-year shelf life.

Given how saturated modern media is, Melillo said anti-smoking ads have succeeded at cutting through the clutter by making your skin crawl. "It's so arresting, so shocking, somebody's going to stop and pay attention," she said of the series 'Tips from Smokers' and another where body bags are dumped in front of tobacco giant Phillip-Morris, "the downside of that is we grow increasingly jaded."

McCarthy Metcalf said there's another downside. She worries they add to the stigma, making it less likely for someone fighting addiction to seek help, and communities less likely to give it.

"It's time we take a step away from showing the devastation of addiction, and show the promise of recovery," she said.

McCarthy Metcalf said campaigns should feature more voices of those who successfully rose out of addiction - as she did. Now an advocate, she said ads should make it clear that help is available, and recovery is possible, as is common with ads related to other medical conditions.

She said the message most likely to get a user into recovery is simple, "there is hope, in that we can and do recover from alcohol and drug addiction."

McCarthy Metcalf and Melillo may differ in style, but both argue an effective ad-campaign could be a smart use of resources in America's never-ending fight with addiction.

Anti-smoking efforts have been well-funded - thanks to a settlement cash from 'Big Tobacco'. Sen. Brown has suggested an anti-opioid campaign could benefit similarly - with suits pending against 'Big Pharma'.