I am a copywriter. My job is to explore ideas with words and pictures to get people to do things. And I have something to say about the South Dakota Meth campaign. Because I’m qualified. Hear me out.
I was once asked to create an advertising campaign for the Charlotte Police Department’s Animal Care division. It was early 2000s and the euthanasia rate here was one of the highest in the country. “Embarrassingly high,” as it was explained to me by the people at the shelter. “It’s heartbreaking. And it’s getting worse.” There were lots of factors behind why we were putting down so many dogs and cats, but none of that mattered. What mattered to me was there was a clear problem that needed effective communications to help solve.
So I built a campaign that included all the basics back then—TV, radio, outdoor, print, etc. etc. The main idea was “Spay. Neuter. Adopt. They’re the Humane Things To Do.” It was a pretty good line—essentially giving people specific calls-to-action on how to help solve the problem. The problem, of course, was framed in headlines and pictures in ads and whatnot. At the heart of the campaign was one specific idea that occurred to me during the first meeting with the folks at the shelter.
This image was launched as billboards throughout Charlotte and not a day went by when someone didn’t call the police department to complain. The main complaint was, “I don’t want to see a dead dog during my commute.” Of course it’s not a dead dog, but rather an X-ray of a dog in full gallop. That said, the idea struck a nerve in people. Which was exactly the intention.
We had a big problem that was growing worse every day.
During the next two years while the campaign ran, the euthanasia rate dropped precipitously while adoptions skyrocketed. Now I’m not going to sit here and tell you that the campaign was the reason, but I did receive a commendation from the Chief of Police for the pro bono campaign. And it all started with this one image which was mocked and ridiculed by people, but quite possibly shocked them into the reality that we had a big problem that needed their action to solve.
When the campaign for South Dakota hit, the knee-jerk reaction on Twitter was, “WHAT?? WHO THE HELL THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA?”
Any time there’s an outcry on Twitter and everyone runs in one direction really fast with their fists in the air, I know that there’s almost always a flip side with merit. (I’ve been on Twitter a long time and basically it serves as a touchstone to understanding how people think en masse.) It’s easy to see the flaws in things. Easy to pick apart those things to look smart to your cynical friends online. But know this–there is always a flip side.
So after my initial shock in seeing an ad of an old farmer with the line “Meth. I’m on it.” I thought more about it.
After a few minutes it occurred to me that what everyone was mocking was actually something bold and audacious. I don’t know if I’d have written this concept. And if I did, I don’t know if I’d have presented it. I mean surely they would kill it in the approval process. Right? But SD didn’t kill it. Why?
Because the line is a double entendre that turns your original thought on its head.
1. “Meth. We’re On It.” South Dakota has a big problem. Big enough for them to spend half a million dollars for this ad campaign (pro bono isn’t for everyone. God I suck at business.), and another couple million to run it. On the one hand, because of the composition of the art with a human being at the center of the visual, the line implies that WE are on Meth. Taking it. Dying from it. Regular folks. Folks you know and love. Because meth is a hyper-addictive substance that doesn’t discriminate. Sure, it’s shocking to think that this old farmer could be a meth addict, but he could be. The addiction can affect anyone. And even if he’s not, he’s a victim of the scourge of meth because it affects everyone in the community.
2. “Meth. We’re On It.” South Dakota is tackling a big problem. The leaders have thought through the problem and realize that the first step to solving it is awareness. To face the problem head on. To kick its ass. To communicate the problem positioning it in such a way that the audience can’t ignore it. And you know what? By virtue of the national attention this campaign has already received, I’d say their earned media has surpassed expectations.
All because of an audacious line that someone had the guts to write and present. And that the people in charge of the well-being of South Dakota citizens had the chutzpah to approve.
Look, I am not saying that this is a great line. I’m also not saying that a double entendre is a magic wand. And I’m damn sure not saying that every ad campaign has to try to shock people. But some do. When the stakes are high enough.
What I am saying is that every ad campaign everywhere should aspire to be bold with its core idea. And whether you like it or not, this is a bold position by South Dakota.
Don’t fear audacious ideas. They sink their teeth deeper than the glut of safe and boring messaging that people have to wade through every day.