Two careers beat as one: Trying to get people on and now off controlled substances!

Two careers beat as one: Trying to get people on and now off controlled substances!

October 9, 2020

Outdueling alcohol and tobacco with advertising is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.     

For over 25 years, I worked in the creative department at a number of big name advertising agencies. I was (and am) a copywriter by trade and began my career in that capacity, at the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. During my lengthy tenure at that storied agency I wrote and produced copy for numerous alcohol and tobacco clients, including (in no particular order): the Phillip Morris company (now named Altria Group), Diageo (Wine & Spirits), Anheuser Busch, and the Miller Brewing company. These were and are Fortune 50 multinational companies spending many, many millions of dollars a year on marketing alcohol and tobacco products to any number of audiences, none more coveted than the youngest populations.

      Though federal and state laws were in place regulating the drinking and smoking ages of consumers, by definition mass media easily allowed advertisers to circumvent them. After all, a beer commercial televised on a football game could be seen by adults and children alike. Print media (remember that?) had more discernable target audiences i.e. Playboy and Esquire (adult males) Martha Stewart (adult females), etc. Outdoor adverting (billboards, bus shelters, and the like) had the unique benefit of being able to infiltrate very specific markets via targeted media plans. Putting malt liquor billboards in impoverished urban neighborhoods is a classic and controversial example of how easy it was for advertisers with money to influence the people who could least afford to drink and smoke – economically, sociologically, psychologically, physiologically and even spiritually. But hard times beget hard drinkers and heavy smokers.

      And we all knew it.

      Really, every department in the traditional ad agency (creative, strategy, accounts, media) was built to optimize getting the right messages to the right people. I spent my days crafting copy specifically designed for specific drinkers and smokers, existing and potential. I knew who they were: their age, sex, ethnicity, proclivities and so on. We all did. Our clients paid us to know everything possible about targeted populations. And they had their own people doing the same. Elaborate strategies were developed and implemented to move product. As data became more accurate and actionable, the ability to optimize reach and efficiency grew exponentially. Unsurprisingly, substance abuse disorders among these targeted groups routinely were in excess of national norms. The ramifications were not lost on public servants and various anti-drug/alcohol/tobacco groups.

      Consequently, in order to combat this growing problem, many governmental and societal watchdogs invariably found themselves playing catch up and keep away. Banning outdoor ads near schools and eliminating cigarette ads from many publications were two of the more significant regulatory measures put into place. On another front, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and the Truth Initiative began calling for more stringent policies while underwriting marketing efforts of their own. Many of their efforts have been successful. For example, most teenagers no longer consider smoking cigarettes a right of passage. But many huge efforts were also huge failures. Recall the “Just Say No!” campaign?  It had the opposite effect on young people, perversely making illegal drugs the definition of cool. Getting folks to try something is a lot easier than getting them to stop. It’s not so much a matter of putting the genie back in the bottle; it’s getting the genie to stop drinking from it!

      Therefore, during our class discussion on prevention strategies for reaching and influencing people with either existing substance use disorders or the potential to develop an SUD, it became painfully apparent that these same strategies were (and still are) employed by advertisers to reach the very same audiences!

      For example: The Diffusion of Innovations Framework i.e. utilizing an influencer to create momentum behind a new idea is among the oldest saws in the advertising tool kit.  E.M. Rogers may have coined the phrase in 1962 but using celebrities to sell goods and services dates back hundreds of years, not long after the printing press was developed.

      The Health Belief Model we talked about (that messages will achieve optimal behavior change if they successfully target perceived barriers, benefits, self-efficacy, and threat) perversely mirrors the most common messaging strategies employed by marketers of beer, wine and spirits: Drink this and you’ll be in with the in crowd. Different agendas. Same conceit. “Good for you” can be spun.

      Advertisers are as interested in the Stages of Change Theory as any drug counselor, assessing someone for the likelihood that they might use as opposed to might not.

      And so on.

      Rules and regulations change. But human nature never varies. The theories driving many of the popular environmental strategies for the prevention of drug and alcohol problems are eerily (and necessarily) similar to the strategic marketing plans for alcohol and tobacco. When anti-groups have the most success effecting the environment via advertising it is when they employ the same levels of creativity, sophistication (and hopefully budgets) as their nemesis do. Like they say: fight fire with fire. Know your enemy.

Written for course at Berkeley Extension Certificate Program in the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders