IN November 2019, South Dakota unveiled a bold new campaign to tackle the growing problem of methamphetamine addiction in the state.
They called in Minnesota agency, Broadhead, paying a reported fee of just under USD $450 000 for a series of ads designed to raise public awareness of the issue.
The campaign has certainly achieved its aim of getting people’s attention, although not necessarily in a good way.
Titled “Meth. We’re On It.”, the ad exhorts all South Dakotans to “Get on it”, featuring a range of locals of various ages and backgrounds each proudly declaring “I’m on meth”.
There’s an old rancher dude pictured against that big Midwestern sky, a group of gridiron players, a white-haired lady in church … you get the idea.
You can watch the ad here but, if you really want to have some fun, it’s worth checking out some of the responses on Twitter.
As local newspaper, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, put it: “South Dakota says ‘Meth. We’re On It,’ and Twitter asks, ‘Are you guys OK?’”
Twitter wits have come up with a hallucinogenic array of potential alternative slogans. “Pie. We’re On It” seems particularly popular, but other contenders include “Cocaine. We Love Fresh Powder”, “Stupid. We’re On It”, “Drugs. We’re On All Of Them” and “LSD. The Potatoes Are Chasing Me!”
South Dakotan Governor Kristi Noem has stood by the campaign, describing it to the Washington Post as “a bold, innovative effort like the nation has never before seen”.
She’s probably right that it’s the first time a government has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to suggest its entire constituency is high on illicit substances.
The campaign was sparking conversations around the country, she went on. Also true.
And then: “The mission of the campaign is to raise awareness – to get people talking about how they can be part of the solution and not just the problem. It is working.”
Well, you’d have to define “working”.
Noem appears to subscribe to the “any publicity is good publicity” school of thought, as, by and large, does the advertising industry.
Whipping up controversy has long been considered an effective promotional strategy for everything from soft drinks to camper vans.
But an advertising campaign that seeks to sell public health needs to do more than just grab attention if it’s to be considered successful: it has to change behaviour.
Will South Dakota’s effort achieve that Holy Grail?
It’s hard to see how. The ads really don’t have any content beyond their deliberately outlandish word play.
Judging by the online comments, some viewers even interpreted the campaign as an announcement that South Dakota had legalised methamphetamines.
Mind you, measuring the success, or otherwise, of public health campaigns is notoriously difficult.
Apart from anything else, they generally go hand in hand with a raft of other measures, making it pretty well impossible to tease apart the various elements.
Australia’s graphic antismoking warnings, for example, were accompanied by increased taxes on tobacco products as well as restrictions on smoking at work and in public spaces.
So, yes, smoking rates have declined but we really don’t know what proportion of that is down to the communication campaigns.
South Dakota isn’t the first to get it spectacularly wrong, and they certainly won’t be the last.
A few years ago, The Sydney Morning Herald produced this compilation of the worst anti-drug ads of all time. Time for an update on that one.
Australia’s own Heart Foundation was forced to withdraw its Heartless Words campaign earlier this year, after widespread outrage over ads that said people who fail to look after their health don’t care about their families.
In one ad, a mother putting her child to bed said, “Every time I told you I loved you, I was lying”.
Effective advertising should be eye-catching, surprising, even risk-taking, but it also needs to stay true to the values of whatever it aims to promote.
In South Dakota’s case, that would mean not making a joke of the state’s very real problems with drug addiction.
We may not have a great evidence base to tell us what works in health advertising, but it should have been glaringly obvious those ads weren’t it.
Wishing you all a happy and safe holiday season without a gimmicky advertising campaign in sight.
Jane McCredie is a Sydney-based health and science writer.
The statements or opinions expressed in this article reflect the views of the authors and do not represent the official policy of the AMA, the MJA or InSight+ unless so stated.