McCaffrey’s Anti-Drug Campaign Caught in Crossfire

Described as the largest media buy in history for a public health issue, national drug czar Barry McCaffrey’s $185-million-a-year anti-drug campaign is drawing enfilade fire from left and right for how it spends its money.

The advertising and public relations campaign by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) ignores underage drinking, say some critics, while others charge that it is growing into an overly complicated, big-government program. Among the questions: how can an advertising campaign include $48 million for “non-advertising”?

The critics include Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the Center for Science and the Public Interest, the National Crime Prevention Council (all on the alcohol issue) and the chairman of the House subcommittee on government reform.

“Alcohol is an illicit drug for Americans under the legal minimum drinking age of 21,” MADD President Karolyn Nunnallee declared in a press release. “Failure of this nation’s drug policy to address alcohol and underage drinking will turn this so-called war on drugs into another Vietnam.”

ONDCP deflects that criticism from two different directions: saying it is following orders from Congress to focus only on illicit drugs, and that the campaign (now in its second year) has provided new opportunities for airing public service announcements from other groups about underage drinking.

“Our view is that Congress intended the campaign to address illicit drugs identified by law – and alcohol was not part of it,” says Alan Levitt, who heads the media campaign. Critics who want alcohol targeted tried to introduce language in a Fiscal Year 2000 appropriations bill to let ONDCP address underage drinking. “Research has shown that alcohol is an important gateway drug leading to the use of other illegal drugs,” Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.) said on the House floor during an October budget debate.

The proposed changes, says MADD, were opposed by powerful lobbies like the National Beer Wholesalers Association, while the Clinton administration professed neutrality on the question. In the end, the House Appropriations Committee eliminated the language to include alcohol.

ONDCP was not upset. Levitt says the campaign funding is “barely enough” to ensure that the various messages about illegal drugs will reach the targeted groups of kids and parents. He also says that the media campaign has given a boost to groups fighting underage drinking by airing their public service announcements in conjunction with ONDCP’s paid advertising.

Under a “media match” program, for each ad ONDCP buys, advertising outlets must feature a public service announcement (PSA) in a similar time slot or space. So half of the 211,000 ads placed to date have been PSAs. The PSAs have included ads produced by MADD, says Dona Feiner, senior vice president of the Advertising Council, which acts as a clearinghouse for the public service component of the campaign.

“Yes, we’re getting matching time, and we’re happy about that,” says Teresa Hardt, MADD’s director of public relations. “But we would have preferred that alcohol was included in the taxpayer-supported advertising. Alcohol is the number one youth drug problem.”

Maybe the door is open for more alcohol-related messages. “Any nonprofit or government agency with a PSA can potentially be included in the media match,” Feiner says.

Discover the Obvious?

On the other flank, Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House subcommittee on government reform, raised questions about the media campaign in sharp exchanges with McCaffrey at an October subcommittee hearing.

Mica charged that the drug policy office had turned a simple media buy into a huge government program, contrary to what committee Republicans had in mind. “I now see a very tangled web of contracts that appears overly complicated, expensive, bureaucratic and untested,” he said. “The media campaign has now been divided into dozens of contracts, subcontracts, interagency agreements and transfers, for a wide assortment of purposes.”

Mica also claimed that McCaffrey’s office had been uncooperative in providing information on the media campaign. “They’re just fishing, looking for something,” director McCaffrey replied. “There is no lack of careful scientific evaluation of what we are doing.”

Mica not only charged that the media effort was “untested” – he also complained that the policy office planned to spend $35 million over five years on evaluations of the media effort. “Are expensive evaluations truly needed, including a $4.5 million evaluation that reaffirmed the obvious – that anti-drug messages can increase awareness and knowledge of risk?” Mica asked.

One 1998 study of 12 cities where ONDCP tested its initial ads concluded that “parents are one of the key information sources on drug use dangers.” The study also noted that “parents urgently need to know more about drugs, their risks, what they look like and how young people gain access to them.”

These themes became part of the media campaign, with ads urging parents to recognize the risks their children face and improve communication with their children. In one such ad, actor Carol O’Connor talks about the death of his son. A print ad is headlined, “Communication. The Anti-Drug.” Another TV ad shows a father and son talking over breakfast.

Levitt notes that these ads about parental communication apply to both drugs and underage drinking. “Is that an anti-drug message or an anti-alcohol message?” he asked. “It’s all of the above.”

The Non-ad Campaign

Even without classifying alcohol as a drug, the media campaign takes on the appearance of grand complexity – with a dash of public relations jargon – in ONDCP’s efforts to explain how it is designed as much more than a mere advertising buy. Levitt says the campaign is “fully integrated,” involving print, radio, TV and Internet outlets, and through such “strategic message platforms” as TV programming. ONDCP tries to influence programming through “briefings” with writers, actors, directors and others in the “creative community.”

This latter effort falls under a five-year, $48 million contract for a “non-advertising campaign” with Fleishman-Hillard International Communications, a St. Louis-based public relations firm. Mica questioned the purpose of the Fleishman-Hillard contract. “Wasn’t the whole purpose of the campaign to advertise more extensively?” he asked.

Not if the campaign is “fully integrated,” Fleishman-Hillard maintains.

Bev Schwartz, a senior vice president and project director for Fleishman-Hillard, explains that anti-drug ads are bundled by a similar theme – a “flight,” in adspeak – with a goal that the message will reach most of a targeted audience, like teens or parents. For example, ads about parenting skills – what parents can do to shape their children’s attitudes about drugs – are scheduled to run through mid-December and to air often enough so that 90 percent of U.S. adults will see them at least four times a week.

Meanwhile, Fleishman-Hillard couples the ad blitz with messages on interactive Internet sites and other “non-advertising” contacts through about 50 “partnerships” with organizations like the YMCA and Future Farmers of America. Those groups are supposed to work in concert with the media campaign themes – an “integrated” concept.

But there is no simple way for youth workers to anticipate what themes are coming in the national ads, so as to integrate their local efforts accordingly. “It’s a good idea, but so far it doesn’t work like that,” says Schwartz. “We’re trying to be more subtle.”

Youth workers can subscribe to the campaign newsletter through Other sites coordinated by Fleishman-Hillard present the themes of the anti-drug effort in a targeted way – for parents, for teachers, and for teenagers. Yet to be integrated: youth workers, who don’t rate a web site.

Contact: ONDCP (202) 395-6618; MADD (214) 744-6233. 


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