In the weeks since drug czar John Walters and his Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) commenced their latest anti-drug media campaign with the now infamous $3.4 million Superbowl ads linking domestic drug use to international terrorism, several major players in the drug reform movement have invested in paid advertising in major newspapers and select targeted publications. Two of the ads targeted Bush administration efforts to forge a link between illicit drugs and terrorism, while the other challenged Congress and the administration to act on behalf of medical marijuana patients. But despite the recent flurry of major advertising buys, some of those involved caution that such campaigns have limited utility and must be narrowly focused.
Drug reformers have resorted to paying to get their message out before -- perhaps most strikingly with the 1998 two-page New York Times ad responding to the UN anti-drug summit coordinated by The Lindesmith Center, featuring hundreds of global figures signing on (http://www.drugpolicy.org/news/un.html) -- and Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org) has been running a series of full-page ads in small political opinion journals monthly for several years.
But the appearance of full-page paid ads challenging administration drug policies in the New York Times, the Washington Times, USA Today, and Roll Call, a trade journal for Congress and Congress watchers, in a two-week time span, means drug reformers are spending more on advertising than ever before. The spending spree began with the Libertarian Party's Feb 26 ad in the Washington Times and USA Today, a full-page close-up of drug czar John Walters parodying the Walters' own drug-terror ads (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/225.html#lpadcampaign).
Two days later, the Drug Policy Alliance (formerly The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation) provided another variation on the theme with a full-page ad in Roll Call, the influential Capitol Hill bi-weekly. "This month I watched the Super Bowl, wasted 10 million taxpayer dollars on a deceptive ad campaign, and shamelessly exploited the war on terrorism to prop up the failed war on drugs," reads the ad, over a photo of President Bush. "C'mon, it was just politics."
"The drug czar's office seems to think that American youth are as dumb as a doorknob," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of Drug Policy Alliance, in a prepared statement. "It's hard to believe that any American teenager smoking homegrown marijuana is going to believe she's subsidizing Bin Laden's terror campaign. They're going to spoof these ads just the way they spoofed the 'fried egg' ads a decade ago. Blaming nonviolent Americans for terrorism is like blaming beer drinkers for Al Capone's murders," continued Nadelmann.
And on Wednesday, the Marijuana Policy Project's Coalition for Compassionate Access (http://www.compassionateaccess.org) placed a full-page in the New York Times, calling on President Bush to allow seriously ill people to use medicinal marijuana without fear of arrest and imprisonment. Across from a photo of a white-haired man standing in a garden, the large-font text read: "Walt could spend his final days in prison instead of a hospital."
In smaller type, the ad urged the president to acknowledge and act on the findings of the 1999 Institute of Medicine study of medical marijuana, which found limited but legitimate uses. Beneath the letter were the names of the so-far 400 signatories, ranging from prominent individuals such as Walter Cronkite, Alan Dershowitz, Hugh Downs, Milton Friedman, Frank Serpico and Dr. Andrew Weil to organizations such as the American Public Health Association and more than a dozen state nursing associations, as well as doctors, patients, and more than a hundred state legislators.
The ads aren't cheap. The Libertarian Party paid nearly $10,000 for its ad in the Washington Times and $60,000 for the USA Today spot. According to the Marijuana Policy Project, they got a bargain, paying $38,000 for a "stand-by" full page ad in the New York Times. By accepting a degree of uncertainty and short notice of when the ad would actually run, MPP got a dramatic reduction from the normal $126,000 weekday rate. Drug Policy Alliance paid $8,000 for its ad in the small circulation but target-rich Capitol Hill newspaper.
Some question whether they were effective. "We will not be buying more ads like that," said MPP executive director Rob Kampia. "You can measure the effectiveness of an ad or campaign in three ways: how it helps your organization grow, how much free media it generates, and how much it actually changes public policy," Kampia told DRCNet. The New York Times ad failed on two of the three measures, he said.
"Our response rate in terms of hits, new subscribers and contributions was negligible," Kampia said, adding that paid ads were a "terrible" way to build a database. "And we didn't get the media response we expected, that was a disappointment. We tried to generate attention -- I can't blame our staff -- but that is one of those things that is out of your control," he said.
"But the most important measure of effectiveness is whether this can kick-start a campaign to actually change federal policy," said Kampia, "and we will not know the answer to that for some months. But we do think this will set the stage for some meetings with Bush administration officials."
While officials of the Libertarian Party told DRCNet they did not know if they would run similar ads in the future, they had a more upbeat assessment than Kampia. "We definitely feel positive about the ad," said party press secretary George Getz. "We wanted to do three things: We wanted to generate more media coverage and we did that. We wanted to generate money for the campaign from people who had not been involved with the party before. We did that. One-third of the money came from non-party members," Getz said. "And we wanted to fire up the party members and spit in the drug czar's eye and we did that, too," he said.
But while the Libertarian ads generated some press attention, with the latest coup being the appearance of LP political director Ron Crickenberger on Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor this week, Getz complained that non-actions by government officials could dampen media responses to paid ads, citing his party's recent experience with the drug czar's office as a case in point.
"The media thrives on controversy," said Getz, "and ONDCP is studiously avoiding any comment despite having gotten a number of media inquiries about it. Several journalists have called ONDCP spokesman Tom Reilly, including the producers of a nationally syndicated talk show, and he won't return their calls," said Getz. "It's pretty maddening to have a taxpayer-funded press secretary who refuses to do his job."
Or maybe is doing his job all too well, Getz suggested. "They've been hoisted by their own petard," he said. "They know we are using government figures to make the case that prohibition is dramatically driving up the price of drugs and funneling money to terrorists. That's their information, not ours," he said. "No wonder they don't want to respond."
The Drug Policy Alliance's Tony Newman expressed mixed feelings about the group's ad in Roll Call. "It led to a very favorable San Francisco Chronicle story and it got [DPA executive director] Ethan Nadelmann on Fox's Hannity & Colmes, but I have to say we were a little bit disappointed in the media coverage," he told DRCNet. "You have to remember that we had been in the mix on this drug-terror issue from the beginning; the media will only come for our opinion so many times on one issue," he said.
"But this is an important issue. To blame half of American high school students for terrorism is just outrageous," said Newman, "and it is important that our audience -- and it was a very carefully targeted audience of politicians and beltway types in DC -- know that we are on to their cynical approach and will continue to hammer them."
According to advertising industry wisdom, it helps if that hammer strikes repeated blows. "A full-page ad in a national newspaper has tremendous impact even if it's a one-shot deal," said Mary Hilton, director of public affairs for the American Advertising Federation. "But repetition is ideal," she told DRCNet. "It keeps the brand in front of the consumer."
That can be a problem when those ads go for tens of thousands of dollars a pop. Common Sense for Drug Policy gets around that hurdle by pursuing a strategy similar to DPA's use of Roll Call to find a key target audience. "We've been putting ads in the same magazines for more than a year now," said CSDP director Kevin Zeese. "We do change the ads, but they have a common style and they're always about the drug war, so we are achieving that repetition of the message. And we do it relatively cheaply by targeting opinion leader magazines. For under $10,000 a month we regularly place ads in the New Republic, the National Review, the Weekly Standard, Reason, the Nation and the Progressive," Zeese told DRCNet.
"We're aiming at more bang for the buck by targeting opinion leader mags, those that are read by the media, elected officials and their staffs, heads of trade associations and advocacy groups," Zeese explained. "These are people who are concerned about issues and will repeat our message."
When asked what he would do with a larger advertising budget, Zeese daydreamed aloud. "Ah," he said, "we'd like to run a series of four or more ads in Time and Newsweek, but also TV and radio commercials, and more likely, an ongoing presence in key trade journals," he mused. "Give me a quarter-million dollars and you'll see that series of ads in Newsweek and Time, followed by the trade journals."
And Zeese encouraged others dipping their toes into the expensive world of big media ad buys to persevere. "It's great more people are advertising," he said. "If you're disappointed, well, learn that lesson, but don't give up, keep coming back. We have to get our message out."
Kampia may feel disappointed about the response level to the New York Times ad, but he is definitely not giving up. "We may not be doing any more ads like that, but we will definitely continue to publicly call on the Bush administration to change their policy," he said. "We'll be doing other media shenanigans, news conferences, letters to the editor, civil disobedience."