January 12 — Internet magazine Salon.com runs a feature story by free-lancer Daniel Forbes explaining how the Drug Czar’s office — the Office of National Drug Control Policy, which reports to the President — remunerates networks for inserting “anti-drug messages” into TV scripts. In a nutshell: in 1997 Congress allocated almost $1 billion for a five-year anti-drug ad campaign, to be directed by the Drug Czar, in which the media would match each paid ad with a free one. Turns out the TV networks have been inserting ONDCP-approved anti-drug messages into scripts in lieu of providing ads.
January 14 — The New York Times devotes a front-page story to the ONDCP’s anti-drug ad campaign and credits Salon.com with an exposé.
It has been observed that a story displeasing to the establishment and broken by a “minor” publication will be ignored unless it's repeated enough to achieve critical mass, i.e., explode onto the pages of the New York Times. Coverage of the ONDCP's “youth anti-drug ad campaign” confirms the generalization perfectly.
Before Forbes in Salon.com there was Paul Armentano in the October ’99 issue of “The Freeman,” a small libertarian monthly. Armentano is the publicity director of NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. In a piece entitled “Bought and Sold: Drug Warriors and the Media,” he quoted Alan Levitt, the Drug Czar’s top ad exec, praising “the tremendous response by the media and entertainment industry. They’re willing to listen to what we’ve been saying and they [are] willing to change storylines.”
Armentano quoted an ONDCP press release taking credit for anti-marijuana messages in NBC’s Hang Time: “When kids and teens across the nation tuned into the popular TV show, they saw a group of high schoolers catch their friends smoking marijuana, witnessed the negative consequences of drug use, and saw some real friends convince their pal to get help.” Similar banalities were inserted into NBC’s One World, City Guys, and Saved by the Bell: The New Class.
The ONDCP also got a commitment from the Magazine Publishers of America, according to Armentano, that included “providing editorial support” for the government line. He quotes McCaffrey telling the publishers, “We want the magazine industry to be a critical player in this effort. However, we have yet to determine exactly how much of the roughly $775 million will go to magazines. That proportion depends on your response. If you deliver the commitment of your industry, we will provide the resources necessary to deliver the message on your pages.”
When somebody’s trying to get air play for a record they call it Payola, and it’s supposed to be illegal.
A second hook on which to hang the ad campaign story was ignored by the Times back on October 14, 1999, when McCaffrey appeared before a Congressional subcommittee (on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources) to discuss the anti-drug ad campaign. Rep. John Mica of Florida, a Nancy Reagan fan who thinks the current ads aren’t scary enough, wanted details about how the $185 million a year is being spent.
“I now see a very tangled web of contracts that appears overly complicated, expensive, bureaucratic and untested,” said Mica, amusingly. “The media campaign has now been divided into dozens of contracts, subcontracts, interagency agreements and transfers, for a wide assortment of purposes. I question the need for a $10 million reimbursable work agreement with a contractor to provide contract and administrative support services. Why is this needed? Why was $750,000 sent to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to develop innovative and effective approaches to the prevention of young substance abuse? Doesn’t SAMSHA do this already? If not, why not?
“In particular I question the award of almost $10 million per year over a five-year period to a public relations firm [Fleishman Hillard], apparently with little federal contract experience, as part of a non-advertising campaign. Wasn’t the whole purpose of this campaign to advertise more extensively? Was it necessary to spend a million dollars for a 50-page communications plan? Are the expensive evaluations truly needed, including a $4.5 million evaluation of cities that reaffirmed the obvious that anti-drug messages can increase awareness and perception of risk? What do we expect from the projected five-year $35 million national evaluation?”
Witness Barry McCaffrey responded, testily, that his office had been “brought to a halt for the better part of two weeks” gathering the documentation sought by Mica. (The ONDCP has a staff of 147, up from about 15 when Clinton took office.) McCaffrey testified that the ads are expensive because professional research and expertise goes into their development. “We have a series of community epidemics,” he said, “requiring precise placement of each message.”
Which doesn’t explain why we have billboards in downtown San Francisco and the urban flatlands of Berkeley telling parents to “go pick apples” with their children to keep them off drugs. What could be more irrelevant and insulting?
“We are meeting regularly with producers and entertainment executives in Hollywood,” McCaffrey testified October 14, “to offer factual medical and behavioral perspectives on drug use. We have been well received in the television industry, in particular where there is an openness to accurately depict the real-life risks and consequences of drug use. Meetings and discussions with producers, writers and studio executives have yielded strategic anti-drug messages and accurate depictions of substance abuse into more than 50 television shows like ER, Chicago Hope, Cosby, Sports Night, NYPD Blue and The Practice.”
“Just recently,” McCaffrey read on, “the Straight Scoop News Bureau, a resource for middle and high school journalists, teamed up with Sun Microsystems, OpenVoice and Athlete Direct to host a live online chat with San Francisco 49ers Quarterback Steve Young. Young discussed the importance of living a healthy, drug-free lifestyle. Student journalists were encouraged to ask Steve Young questions and publish articles in their school papers. This event was broadcast live via satellite to more than 250 cities.”
Encouraging an aspiring journalist to accept spoon-fed pap and publish it as “news” is corruption of the innocent. Which is to say, good training for a career in corporate communications.
McCaffrey also shared with Congress some jargon from the ad world that the concerned taxpayer might find interesting:
• “Ogilvy Mathers’ fighting plan will enable ONDCP to focus all elements of the integrated communications plan on strategic message platforms that have been identified by ONDCP’s behavior expert panel. As opposed to the first two phases, each individual platform will receive sufficient media exposure to change attitudes and ultimately behavior. Moreover, disparate local coalitions and community efforts can work synergistically with this focused national campaign to increase the effectiveness of the effort. Partnership for a Drug Free America and its Creative Review Committee have endorsed this strategic approach.”
• “Branding is universally acknowledged by sophisticated marketers and leading advertisers as the way to ensure long-term sustainable success, and to multiply the impact of advertising dollars. Branding increases consumer mind share of anti-drug messages; maximizes the impact of advertising dollars; creates synergy between advertising and non-advertising messages; and unites an organization’s messages. Branding is a business proven concept. Ogilvy’s four-month Brand Stewardship research process (which entailed interviewing adults and youth of all ethnicities) led to the adoption by ONDCP of The Anti-Drug as the campaign’s brand. Phone call response to the new branded ads has been excellent.”
The fact that McCaffrey boasted back in October of ONDCP’s penetration of the media does not diminish the credit due Daniel Forbes for uncovering new elements of a very big story. Forbes describes how much haggling has gone on between the agency flacks, the government hacks and the networks. “According to a set, numerical formula, the drug-policy office assigned financial value to each show's anti-drug message. If the office decided that a half-hour sufficiently pushed an endorsed anti-drug theme, it got valued at three units, with each unit equaling the cost of one 30-second ad on that show. Hour shows presenting an approved story line were valued at five units, equal to the cost of five of that show's 30-second ads
“To partially meet its match, and thus recoup some of the ad time owed the government, Fox submitted a two-episode Beverly Hills 90210 story arc involving a character's downward spiral into addiction. Employing the formula based on the price of an ad on 90210, the episodes were eventually valued at between $500,000 and $750,000, says one executive close to the deal.”
Forbes identified some 24 scripts assigned dollar values by the drug czar's office and its ad buyers, Zenith and Ogilvy Mather. “ER redeemed $1.4 million worth of time for NBC to be able to sell elsewhere. The Practice recouped $500,000 worth of time for ABC to sell if it wished.”
Remember this one? A man asks a woman if she’ll sleep with him for a million dollars. She considers and says Yes. He says, “How about for 10 dollars?” She says, “What do you think I am?” He says, “We’ve already established that, now were just haggling over price.