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On Risky Ad Campaigns

If you were talking, texting, or tweeting about South Dakota’s new anti-meth ads, the campaign did its job, Minneapolis ad agency says. Not everyone agrees.

On Risky Ad Campaigns
South Dakota's new anti-meth ad campaign.

It was the ad campaign heard round the world.

On Monday, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem announced a new campaign aimed at combatting meth addiction in her state. Crafted by Minneapolis ad agency Broadhead, the campaign features a series of photos and videos with the tagline “Meth. We’re on it.”

Within the first 24 hours, the ads went viral. On Twitter, users logged on to share hot takes galore. News outlets from New York to Australia responded with a stream of social-media-reaction stories. Multiple newspapers – including our state’s venerable paper of record – said the campaign “raises eyebrows.”

All according to plan, says Broadhead president Beth Burgy.

“As far as we’re concerned, the campaign is doing its job,” she says. “It’s generating conversation, it’s soliciting all kinds of reactions and, yes, it’s making people uncomfortable. But discomfort causes change and demands action.”

Broadhead execs say the campaign’s double meaning was no mistake. On Twitter, Gov. Noem said much the same.

“Hey Twitter, the whole point of this ad campaign is to raise awareness. So I think that’s working,” she wrote.

Of course, there are some limits to virality. The adage that there’s “no such thing as bad press” doesn’t always hold true in the age of social media.

“Going viral through social media is awesome, but it’s a double-edged sword because there’s no reining it back in,” says Gino Giovannelli, marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas. “It can get away from you a lot faster than with a traditional press release.”

Other ad pros were a little less generous. Joanna Hjelmeland, CEO of Minneapolis-based Next Level Strategy, said the campaign is a good case study of “what not to do.”

“Attention grabbing? You bet. Creating media buzz? Yep. Completely missing the mark when it comes to creating a serious anthem about a devastating issue? Definitely,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post. “In my business, we all love a creative idea. But in some cases, the impact of the creative concept could hit the mark or go seriously sideways.”

To be sure, crystal meth addiction is no laughing matter—in South Dakota or elsewhere. From 2014 to 2018, the state logged a 200 percent jump in the number of people seeking help for addiction to the drug, The New York Times reported, quoting a Noem cabinet member.

And South Dakota ponied up some serious cash for the campaign: The state paid Broadhead $449,000 to create the messaging. The state’s contract with the ad agency allots up to $1.4 million in total, according to Sioux Falls’ Argus Leader.

Under the agreement, Broadhead was asked to “develop and produce effective South Dakota-specific campaign elements that increase awareness of methamphetamine use and promote resources for prevention, treatment, and recovery.”

The ad agency is also tasked with ensuring the “campaign is staying true to its objectives.”

Meanwhile, across the country, meth usage has exploded in recent years. In 2016, just under 700,000 people reported having a meth “use disorder,” meaning their use of the drug led to significant impairment in their personal or professional lives. In 2017, that number skyrocketed to 964,000, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

Some ad pros worry that those statistics will get lost in the social media shuffle.

“Unsurprisingly, social media is going with mockery,” Hjelmeland said.

The campaign does feature an accompanying website – “onmeth.com” – which provides resources for folks in the throes of addiction. The site also includes information for people who want to help others dealing with meth addiction. It remains to be seen whether South Dakotans will seriously use those resources.

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