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Awareness campaign tackles treatment

January 1, 2007
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A new effort for the PDFA appears to drive demand for services

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA) has long been associated with communicating the nation's most visible drug and alcohol abuse prevention messages through public service announcements. With the help of advertising agencies that provide their services on a pro bono basis, the partnership's work reached iconic status in the 1980s with a simple image of an egg frying and the accompanying tagline “This is your brain on drugs.” This vivid depiction of drug abuse's physiologic effects resonated with a generation of young people and became part of the cultural lexicon, and its effectiveness provided the foothold for future antidrug PSAs.

While duplicating the success of its famous 1980s ad could prove elusive, the PDFA is nonetheless trying to parlay its experience in communicating prevention messages to the addiction treatment field. Through a series of television commercials, radio spots, and newspaper and billboard ads, the PDFA wants to tell Americans with drug and alcohol addiction and their families that addiction is a disease like any other and that treatment should be sought. The Hope, Help and Healing campaign aspires to erase the stigma still associated in some circles with addiction.

The campaign was piloted in early 2005 in Houston and Cincinnati, and all indications are that requests for treatment information have increased in these communities, with a surge in phone calls to hotlines and visits to a dedicated Web site administered by the PDFA. Building on this success, the PDFA is now planning rollouts for other cities.

The Partnership embarked on this effort with the realization that there is a continuum between prevention and treatment, says Paul Costiglio, the PDFA's deputy director of public affairs. The endeavor encompassed several years of research and discussion with addiction treatment professionals, as well as the creative process with the advertising agencies. Five agencies worked with the PDFA to create the ads, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation provided financial support.

A synopsis of several of the eight television ads used in the campaign illustrates the diverse creative approaches that were used to emblazon the message that addiction is a disease, that it affects family members as well as the individual, and that help should be sought expeditiously:

  • Arguably the most controversial pair of ads in the series addresses the disease concept head-on. In one of the ads, a woman approaching middle age states: “I’d rather have heart disease; that way you wouldn’t look at me with shame. You and I could talk openly about my problem—there would be no stigma…. If I had heart disease, you would understand that I need treatment, not hate.” A similar theme is repeated in the second ad by a young man with a pencil-thin mustache and dark hair reaching the nape of his neck: “It’d be better if I had cancer; then you wouldn’t tell me what I’m going through is just a phase,” he says. “You wouldn’t see my condition as a lack of willpower but the disease that it truly is. There’d be walks, telethons, campaigns to raise funds to end it. If I had cancer, you’d understand I need treatment, not a lecture.” Despite the controversial dialogue in these ads, campaign personnel say very few complaints from the public about the messages were logged in the two pilot cities.

  • Another ad uses the message “Choose to help a loved one with a drug or alcohol problem; it could change everything.” This ad uses word substitution to reflect the changing circumstances of someone who receives help: “Your daughter's wasted again; you ignore it/get help; soon she's arrested/promoted; you post bail/congratulate her; one day you get a call; it's bad news/good news; she's gone/expecting; you cry.”

  • An ad geared toward the person in need of help portrays a young man waking up in the operating room just as he is about to undergo surgery. “Whoa, I can handle it myself,” he says, as he pulls himself off the surgical table and leaves the room. A voiceover intones: “You wouldn’t face any other disease alone; why face drug addiction alone?”

  • An ad entitled “I Waited” shows family members and friends saying how they waited for their troubled love one to reach a certain point, culminating with a mother saying: “I waited for my daughter to die.” The voiceover states: “What are you waiting for—don’t wait for someone with a drug or alcohol problem to hit bottom,” and then directs viewers to a campaign Web site now found at

  • In another ad, a car hurtles around a corner as an impaired man smashes into a van crossing traffic. The ad portrays the actual physical impact not only on the driver, but on his wife, daughter, and father. “Your addiction isn’t just hurting you. It's hurting your family, friends, everyone,” the voiceover intones.

Quantitative impact

The PDFA worked with the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati and the Alcoholism Council of the Cincinnati Area, an affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD), as local partners for the Cincinnati pilot. The Alcoholism Council already had hotlines in place to handle incoming calls emanating from the campaign advertising, and the ads also furnished a new local phone number to call. Interestingly, while phone call volume to the new dedicated line was significant, the existing hotlines experienced an astronomical increase in calls after the start of the campaign.