Drugs are winning the advertising war

Anti-drug advertisements have to be some of the least insightful pieces of marketing garbage  out there. Maybe that’s because the people making them don’t properly understand the motivations or consequences of drug abuse. Maybe it’s because the people paying for such advertisements (i.e. governments) are naturally risk-averse and don’t want to push the limits of advertising. Maybe it’s because we’re trapped in an endless cycle of preconceptions and notions about people who get addicted to drugs.

Truth be told, I don’t know why anti-drug advertisements are so bad, but I do know that these are the results in Hong Kong:

Drug friends? What?

Drug friends are the worst. Always bleeding everywhere…

Words. Words. Words! More words. Words.

Words. Words. Descriptors! Words! Dramatic effect!

How I imagine this conversation went: "Hey John, what are some bad drugs that people shouldn't use?" "Uh... ketamine. Heroin." "Aren't they like the same thing?" "I guess" And thus an advertisement was born.

How I imagine the conversation behind this ad went:

“Hey John, what are some bad drugs that people shouldn’t use?”

“Uh… Ketamine. Heroin.”

“Aren’t they like the same thing?”

“I guess.”

Unfortunately, Hong Kong isn’t the epitome of awful anti-drug advertising. It inherited the nonsense from America’s War on Drugs and some of the worst, tone-deaf advertisements of all time. Enjoy:

All drugs will literally kill you immediately. You wouldn't smoke cyanide, would you?

All drugs will literally kill you immediately. You wouldn’t smoke cyanide, would you?

A dog wrote this. If smoking pot gives me the ability to talk to animals, sign me up.

Co-branding won’t save you. Funnily enough, I think “Get a pizza” is the best advice in this incredibly awkward drug deal gone wrong.

Nah, that’s an egg.

20 years later. Still an egg.

Someone thought this was a logical argument.

And the biggest culprit of all.

And the biggest culprit of all.

But wait! Isn’t “Just Say No” the pinnacle of anti-drug advertising? It’s what people think of when they talk about anti-drug campaigns! My response is: how many times have you heard “Just Say No” without an ounce of irony attached to the expression?

The trouble I see with anti-drug advertising isn’t the execution. Some of it is kind of clever. The trouble comes from the insight. Rather than deal with the complex human emotions that are associated with trial, use and abuse of drugs, most organizations seem content with heuristics–gross simplifications of cause and effect.

The thought process behind a typical anti-drug advertisement

 “John, we need to create an ad campaign to get kids away from drugs.”

“Makes sense. Drugs are bad. Let’s think about this logically. Why are drugs bad?”

“Because they are bad for you!”

“People don’t like doing things that are bad for you! Let’s make an ad about how drugs affect your brain!”

“Great idea, John!”

“Yeah, when you’re on drugs, your brain gets scrambled… like an egg!”

“John, you glorious bastard, you just won our agency a Cannes Lion for sure!”

/end scene

Did anti-drug advertisements skip account planners?

The simplification of anti-drug advertisements is problematic because it ignores the bigger issues at play with drugs such as social pressures, depression, curiosity, hopelessness or boredom. It also lumps drugs into one big category where you have advertisers claiming that heroin and ketamine are literally the same thing.

Some ads try to attack root causes, but it’s not enough. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles example above  is the worst offender of the bunch. Yeah, social pressure can theoretically get kids to try drugs. But does anyone in their right minds expect a kid a full foot shorter than an older drug dealer to shove said dealer and say, “I’m not a chicken. You’re a turkey.”

I mean, WHAT.

Social pressures aren’t as simple as a shady guy walking up to a kid and doing a hard sell. It’s more likely to come from a friend, which undercuts the whole “us vs. them” dichotomy that many of these ads try to establish. “Hey, I’ve known you for about ten years and we’re best friends. But you just offered me a joint. We’re done forever, pal.”

Tackling drugs

First, a short economics lesson. For all goods and services in the world, there exists the concept of elasticity. Some things are relatively elastic in terms of demand. Store doesn’t have Coca Cola? “Whatever. Pepsi is fine.”

Other things are far more inelastic, meaning demand doesn’t change much, even if supply is short. Drugs are a perfect examples of an inelastic good. If there’s high supply due to legalization, then obtaining drugs is simple. If there’s low supply due to law enforcement or smuggling restrictions, demand remains the same but the costs of obtaining drugs rise dramatically. Bear in mind that those costs include the actual price and the risk involved. Crime rises when the supply falls.

So attacking supply seems like a poor way of dealing with the drug problem. This is where legalization arguments come in. If it’s legal, people will still buy drugs, but at least they’ll do so in a regulated environment. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.

Attacking demand for drugs is a far more effective anti-drug strategy, because with less demand, there’s less of a need for an expansive international drug network with its associated crime. In theory, anti-drug advertisements should be effective–if they actually address the root causes of drug demand.

For anti-drug advertisements to be effective, they need to recognize some key issues:

  • Elementary school kids probably aren’t going to be taking heroin. Re-adjust your audience targets, please.
  • Realistically, “just say no” isn’t enough. The social world of a teenager is complicated enough without introducing a black-and-white moral judgement into their lives. All JSN does is empower other kids to cast judgement on other teenagers, which helps no one.
  • Teenagers think they’re invincible. Just look at teen mortality rates behind the wheel. Does a description of the effects of drug use actually dissuade this already irrational audience?
  • Anti-drug advertisers need to stop pretending to be cool. Even if an ad were 99% authentic, most people would be able to sniff out that 1% that was clearly influenced by someone too straight-laced to be relevant to their target audience. This means never include hip-hop in your advert.
  • Word of mouth advertising is the most powerful kind of advertising. Let’s say Kid A sees an anti-pot ad. It says pot will turn your brain to crap. Let’s say Kid A has a friend, Kid B, who smokes pot. But Kid B doesn’t have a crap brain! Is Kid A supposed to believe the ad or his actual experiences?
  • On that note, don’t lie to your audience. Pot won’t cause you to die an incredibly painful death. There are problems with pot, but don’t over-sell them or your entire facade of credibility is ruined. Laziness and over-eating are perfectly valid criticisms of pot use. There’s no need to exaggerate.

Whether or not the government should outlaw drug use is a big, complicated question. But if the government decides to enact an anti-drug campaign, it does have a responsibility to ensure that its policies have a minimum level of effectiveness. Otherwise I’m wasting my tax money.

Just say no (to bad anti-drug ads).

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