Word On The Street

Will a $2 million anti-drug campaign - on TV screens and billboards near you - persuade people to believe in the city enough to keep Baltimore clean?

April 17, 2002|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Reefer Madness. Just Say No. This is Your Brain on Drugs. Take a Bite Out of Crime. Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk. D.A.R.E. to Keep Kids Off Drugs. M.A.D.D. Ecstasy: Where's the Love?

Baltimore Believe.

Get the messages? Or just remember the slogans and acronyms?

For decades, government agencies and community groups have spent billions on anti-drug advertising - Congress alone has allocated $1 billion over the next five years for such an effort. But do anti-drug, anti-crime, anti-anything campaigns change unhealthy and illegal behavior after the stark billboards come down and the scary public service announcements stop airing? What's the return on the investment? Results are hard to measure in any campaign aimed at changing human behavior.

On April 5, Baltimore began its 13-week "Baltimore Believe" campaign - possibly the city's most expensive and ambitious anti-drug and anti-crime media effort. Billboards, a four-minute movie told from a 10-year-old boy's point of view, a toll-free hot line (866-235-4383) beginning Monday, a "Declaration of Independence From Drugs" that can be downloaded from the Internet and town hall meetings are all part of the $2 million effort.

The goals are to get people to report drug activity, get addicts into treatment, attract police recruits and encourage community volunteerism in mentoring and after-school programs. As with any campaign, public hopes initially run high.

"My dream result would be a substantial number of people are so moved by a sense of outrage and need to preserve the lives of people that they see that people get treatment," says businessman Michael Cryor, co-chairman of the Baltimore Believe Leadership Committee, a "who's who" of area political, religious and business figures. "You got to get idealistic to attack a problem this large."

Tackling the situation

The problem, as spelled out in campaign literature and played out every day in Baltimore, is that an estimated 60,000 city residents are drug addicts. City officials estimate that at least another 60,000 addicts live in the surrounding four counties and come into the city to buy drugs. Baltimore has been dubbed the heroin capital of the United States and is ranked fifth among U.S. cities in cocaine use. The majority of crime here is drug-related.

This isn't breaking news. And it's not a problem that can be fixed by just saying no, says City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson.

"Unless people believe in the city, it's not going to get much better," says Beilenson, a veteran of anti-drug campaigns. "This isn't just a `Just Say No' campaign. It's much bigger. I don't want to sound corny, but we want people to buy into the city."

Former first lady Nancy Reagan launched the "Just Say No" campaign in the 1980s during the crack cocaine epidemic. The slogan was everywhere. According to one survey at the time, drug use among high school seniors dropped appreciably, which led some to believe the anti-drug campaign worked.

But political administrations and times change, and in the 1990s drug use among young people climbed again. The "Just Say No" slogan became a sort of joke and, worse, the campaign became irrelevant.

In 1998, the $1 billion National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign was launched and, with it, a companion research effort by a Maryland research company and University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School for Communication. Its purpose is to measure the media campaign's effectiveness. The researchers interview children and parents about their drug habits and exposure to anti-drug ads. More research and reports are planned, but the latest report from October 2001 was not encouraging.

"The essential result is that we are not seeing much effect on kids," says leading researcher Robert Hornik, a professor at the Annenberg School.

While children are seeing an anti-drug ad an average of 2.7 times a week, there's been no real change so far in their drug-use behavior, he says. "It might just take longer for the kids to be affected." On a positive note, he says, the research shows that ads targeting parents often do encourage them to talk with their children about drugs.

One point to remember is that behaviors such as drug use are cyclical; a short-term anti-drug campaign cannot realistically maintain its message about a long-term problem, researchers say. Campaigns end; addictive behaviors have a habit of returning. The message, in some form or another, must be sustained. As Hornik says, "Coca-Cola never stops advertising."

In advertising parlance, the messaging from Baltimore Believe is in full swing. The four-minute movie/commercial - funded by the Baltimore Police Foundation - has been playing on local TV stations and causing a buzz among neighbors and folks at grocery stores. "Too real," one caller told the campaign's public relations company. Sixty-second versions of the movie will air beginning next week.

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