January 11, 2004

The New Public Service Ad: Just Say 'Deal With It'


The Partnership for a Drug-Free America
Overheated metaphors, like the 1987 ad "This is your brain on drugs," are out.

THE image is lurid even by today's standards: a young woman kneels on a bathroom floor, head over the toilet, then stands, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

"Sound familiar?" asks a voice with muted Welsh vowels. "If so, you may have bulimia. You cannot flush away your problems. It won't go away until you stop gagging your pain and give it a voice."

The short animation, narrated by Catherine Zeta-Jones, is part of the "Face the Issue" campaign: seven public service announcements aimed primarily at adolescents and young adults, in which the voices of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Kate Hudson address eating disorders, domestic violence and drug abuse.

The campaign is different from those that have gone before it. It does not try to shame the viewer into action. There are no scare tactics that end in the coffins or graves. This is not your brain on drugs. Nor does it emphasize a positive message - snowboarding as the anti-drug, say - that might seem out of reach to its target audience.

Like its precursors in the squeamish 1950's, the wised-up 1970's, the fearful "Just Say No" and let's-hear-nothing-else-about-it 1980's, the "Face the Issue" campaign reflects its time. Brutally frank and uncomfortably intimate, it delves into a world in which young people grow up faster, are more sophisticated and, statistics show, are increasingly diagnosed as troubled. Perhaps more important, rather than appeal to parents, it asks young people to take action themselves. Each message ends with the words: "Your choice."

The 30-second spots, made at cost with the stars donating their time, have been shown on MTV, the WB and other networks. An important component is the corresponding Web site, www.facetheissue.com, a sort of online group therapy session whose users post messages about their problems. The day after the campaign began in late October, the site got 300,000 hits. As of last week, two million people had visited.

The postings lay bare the elaborate pathos of teenagedom today. A girl who says she cannot refrain from cutting herself wrote: "Everyone thinks that because I am a 'surgeon's daughter' and because we have money that my life is perfect. NEWSFLASH: MONEY DOES NOT BUY HAPPINESS."

Another user wrote of a disorder involving a compulsion to pluck one's eyebrows and lashes until only bloody clumps remain. "My parents say that I can stop anytime I want,'' she said.

Unlike most public service campaigns, "Face the Issue" was created without focus groups or market testing. It is the brainchild of two women, Jane B. Semel and Melanie Hall, with no experience producing such messages. Ms. Semel, the wife of Terry Semel, the chief executive of Yahoo, founded ijane inc., a nonprofit production company that promotes public health issues, and Ms. Hall is the company's president.

It gets high marks from mental health experts, particularly because the Web site offers teenagers, who may resist formal treatment, a way to seek support and information anonymously.

"These videos really represent the future rather than the past, because they use animation, they use the Internet, they're interactive," said Jay Winsten, who, as the director of the Center for Health Communication at Harvard, introduced the concept of the designated driver. "It's a model for what future communications with young people will look like."

Public service messages have long been driven by both the national mood and a continuing debate over effective strategy. In the 1950's, children were shown films like "Let's Be Clean and Neat," which emphasized conformity. As Ken Smith, a scholar of such films, writes in "Mental Hygiene," the narrators mocked hapless teens whose bobby socks sagged or who refused to get along.

Indifference toward the afflicted lingered into the 1970's, when one ad showed an addict crying and begging her father for money, then counting it the minute she was out The "Face the Issue" ads do not ostracize or preach. But they do present reality: with unchecked anorexia, "you'll be dead before you're thin enough''; with abuse, "it will happen again."

"What I like about them is they portray the person in trouble as an active agent," said Sally Satel, a psychiatrist and a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. She said they served a different purpose than the "Just Say No" slogan. "They're aimed at different people,'' she said. " 'Just Say No' is prevention. This is for people who really have a problem already."

It was AIDS that led to this plain speaking. In the 1980's, the Ad Council, the major producer of public service announcements, persuaded networks to broadcast the first commercials to use the word "condom."

When it came to effectiveness, celebrity competed against the tragic ending. But William J. Bennett, the first President Bush's drug policy adviser, argued in favor of the fear approach. "Kids need to see more burnout cases," he said in 1989.

Both strategies had pitfalls. Not everyone can identify with celebrities. Horror stories could scare people into inaction. If the peril were exaggerated, young people would smell a rat (or, as with "this is your brain on drugs," fodder for a joke).

A problem with public health campaigns is that they generally address a single issue, said Joseph A. Califano Jr., chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University. The reality, he said, is that people with eating disorders are more likely to abuse drugs and both must be treated to be effective. "It's all one ball of wax," he said.

In the 1990's, research showed that parents are far more effective messengers. New slogans urged parents to talk to their children about drugs and sex.

But an obstacle for teens with eating disorders or drug problems, several experts said, is their parents' denial. A child may not have anorexia but still have serious food-related problems, said Susan Smalley, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles who studies such disorders. "The site is tapping into that group of children and adolescents that aren't being identified," she said.

Peggy Conlon, the president of the Ad Council, said that one way to change behavior is to change what is considered normal. She points to the Legacy Foundation's antismoking ads, showing children ambushing tobacco executives with tough questions. "They're making kids appear smart if they resist smoking," she said.

"Face the Issue" grapples with another issue: what to do when low self-confidence and eating disorders seem to be the norm.

"There is no magic wand, 'Oh, do this and it's all going to be fine,' " said Ms. Semel. "The whole point was not to make the issues so negative. To take the stigma away from it and just make it like anything else in life, something you should deal with."

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