The Stoner Sloth and challenges for government comms

By Stephen Easton

Monday December 21, 2015

Are anti-drugs advertising campaigns ever worth the money?

The New South Wales Stoner Sloth campaign has been comprehensively panned from every angle by a long line of experts — both real and the armchair kind — after gaining solid traction online.

If measured by the blunt old metric that says any publicity is good publicity, the campaign is doing quite well. It’s gone viral, as hoped, but the only visible debate it has stimulated so far is about the merits of the online videos themselves.

On the other hand, its message that “you’re worse on weed” could be gently getting through to some of the young people it is aimed towards, unbeknownst to the online commentators piling on and declaring the exercise an unmitigated failure.

“There has never been an Australian anti-drugs campaign in the media that has been worth the money.”

Media and communications expert Noel Turnbull believes that any money a government department spends telling people simply not to take drugs because they are bad is wasted.

“There has never been an Australian anti-drugs campaign in the media that has been worth the money,” he told The Mandarin.

Turnbull is sceptical about nearly all government advertising pushes, which he says usually have one of two real underlying purposes: to be seen to be doing something about a perceived problem, and to hastily cover for failures to effectively communicate policy.

“Basically it’s either ineffectual, or propaganda,” declared the RMIT University adjunct professor. He adds that there is always widespread cynicism about the motivation and cost of campaigns like Stoner Sloth that threatens to drown out the message.

Turnbull says one of the most successful campaigns of this kind was a series of anti-smoking messages put together by young people themselves. He recalled a time when Victorian bureaucrats rejected a similar idea, as they found too many risks and barriers to getting it off the ground.

Do LOLs respect teenagers?

But still, in playing for laughs, the Stoner Sloth might be persuading some teenagers not to smoke cannabis. The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre, which provided some information and advice to the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet before it developed the videos, is doubtful.

The NCPIC felt it needed to tell the public it had nothing to do with development of the content, and that it “doesn’t reflect NCPIC views on how cannabis harms campaigns should be approached” anyway. The NCPIC said it broadly advised the Premier’s Department that:

“… teenagers are intelligent and have access to a lot of information, so campaign approaches should respect them and give them credit by avoiding hyperbole.”

Making a video series that successfully goes viral isn’t easy — in that respect the agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, has done well. But the message — drugs are bad for you, don’t take them or they will make you “worse” — is very old-fashioned, according to addiction psychiatrist Adam Winstock.

Writing at Guardian Australia, he argues Stoner Sloth is “a textbook lesson in how not to do an anti-drugs campaign” because it starts off by insulting anyone who has ever smoked marijuana:

“It provides no useful information to the person who uses cannabis nor to those who may be worried about another’s use. It fails to acknowledge that for many people, using cannabis can be fun and relatively free from harm.

“What it does is judge cannabis use and those who use it as bad. Full stop. And as anyone of the hundreds of millions of people who have ever got stoned will tell you: that ain’t the truth.”

Winstock, who is currently working on the Global Drug Survey project, says mass campaigns aren’t well suited to the aim of reducing illegal drug use, because you will always upset someone:

“A message that plays down risks and focuses on harm reduction might encourage initiation of use among drug naïve users and upset “parent” voters. Define a person by their drug use and exaggerate the negative and you lose those you might wish to engage.”

And while the videos portray a fairly truthful message — marijuana use can prevent young people reaching their potential — he doubts the tactic of embarrassing the user is going to work:

“These approaches have been used with some success to address issues such as speeding and binge drinking but in the present case I think it will fail to engage those who are those at most risk of cannabis-related harm.”

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