Searing Anti-Drug Ads Are Hitting Home

``I can't believe I ate the whole thing.''

``Just do it.''

``How do you spell relief?''

Some advertisements are to the mind like gum is to hair. Shake, shake, shake your head until the little bright spots dance before your eyes.

Give it up. The slogans still stick, more tenaciously than Hamlet's soliloquy or the quadratic formula or anything else you learned in college.

In the past year, another Madison Avenue mantra has adhered to our gray matter. Given the first two sentences of the TV ad you probably can fill in the third.



Clue: Think of an egg in butter, frying. Loudly.


The metaphor seemed pretty obvious to Larre Johnson and Scot Fletcher, who work at the Los Angeles ad agency Keye/Donna/

Pearlstein and for the volunteer group called Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

``When you do cocaine you're making your heart beat incredibly fast,'' says Fletcher, the 30-year-old art director who teamed with copywriter Johnson, 41, to create the spot. ``You're destroying synaptic nerves. You are frying your brain.''

It's a searing image. But does it work? One recent market survey implies that the shock tactics of the frying-egg ad and others like it are working; but another new study contends the ads are not persuasive.

Johnson and Fletcher hadn't done any blockbuster ads before they wrote the frying-egg spot.

But Fletcher had done coke.

It was recreational use, mostly. Weekends, at parties. Finally, one cocaine high left him wondering whether he should drive to the hospital or stay at home to die. He lived. Then he quit.

The frying egg ad - it comes in 30-, 15- and 10-second versions and first aired last March - sprang to life during the span of a lunch. It took longer to pare the copy to the bone, but the egg was there from the start.

``It's like a single cell,'' says Fletcher. ``It's one of those things you know is living, or has the potential to be.''

They thought about flashing a slogan on-screen at the end of the ad to drive the anti-drug point home. Instead, the screen goes black and the sizzling sound cranks up a notch louder.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America is a nonprofit coalition of volunteers formed in 1986 by advertising and communications industry members. The group creates anti-drug ads then asks TV networks and radio stations and newspapers to chip in with free space and time. It is the largest volunteer ad campaign since the war-bond drives of World War II,

according to the partnership.

The 160-plus TV and print adsMEDIA F 3

Tough anti-drug ads get message across

MEDIAF 1produced by the group show some chilling images: an ambulance above the copy, ``This year, 15,000 cocaine users are in for a real rush''; an open revolver with a joint being slipped into one of the chambers; a young woman diving into an empty swimming pool. And probably the best-known, the bubbling egg.

``We had to be careful to say something powerful that made drugs un-hip,'' says Johnson. ``Most kids, they like things fast. They don't think they're going to die. And if they do, they think it'll be like James Dean, in a ball of fire in a Porsche.''

Johnson and Fletcher realize they work in a field that doesn't exactly peg the needle on the morality meter. Advertising agencies make most of their money creating false hopes and excess desires. They build a world where a new cologne will make you sexy, a new car will leave you satisfied.

To their credit, most agencies donate a portion of their services to public-service causes. Johnson and Fletcher, for example, are already at work on a new series of ads supporting an anti-smoking initiative for California.

With such campaigns the moral content is different. The underlying approach, though, is the same.

``We're experts in influencing attitudes,'' explained Michael Y. Townsend, director of communications for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. He visited Seattle recently to drum up support among local media. In the past two years, the campaign has received more than $300 million worth of free advertising space and time.

Townsend's 25 years of marketing included several years at a New York ad agency where he directed the Warner-Lambert account. There he saw the birth of the Rolaids ``How do you spell relief?'' campaign in the early '70s.

Townsend says the anti-drug ads are working. The latest figures gathered by a market researcher working with the partnership show 88 percent of American teen-agers believe that using cocaine, even occasionally, can be dangerous. The figure was about 10 points lower three years ago, according to Townsend. He also cited results of a new federal study that showed the number of high-school seniors using illegal drugs at least once a year declined to 35.4 percent from 38.5 percent between 1988 and 1989.

A new Harvard School of Public Health study paints a different picture. The study is scheduled to be published this summer in a professional health journal. According to advance reports, it claims that strong ``fear appeals'' seldom work. Rather, the study says, they tend to make target audiences tune out or deny that the message is relevant to them.

But Townsend of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America still believes in the frying-egg message.

``What we've done up to this point is gloom and doom and scary ads. That's why they're effective.''

``Instead of selling something,'' says Townsend, ``we're un-selling.''


Media Watch by Kit Boss appears Thursday in the Scene section of The Times.