Horror ads aimed at deterring meth use in Mont.

February 26, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

KALISPELL, Mont. -- The camera follows the teenager as she showers for her night out and looks down to discover the drain swirling with blood. She turns and sees her methamphetamine-addicted self cowering below, oozing from scabs she has picked all over her body because the drug made her think there were bugs crawling beneath her skin, and she lets out a scream worthy of Psycho.

Turn on prime-time television here, and chances are this or another horror commercial like it will interrupt.

The spots are part of the Montana Meth Project, a saturation campaign paid for by Thomas M. Siebel, a software billionaire and part-time resident who fell in love with Montana's vast skies and soaring mountains as a ranch hand in college and wants to shock the state away from a drug that has ravaged it.

Since it began in September, the Meth Project has become the biggest advertiser in the state, blanketing radio, television, newspapers and billboards with ads so raw that officials quickly asked that they be removed from television before 7 p.m. Now, with other states expressing interest in exporting the campaign, Siebel and state officials say they want to make it a national template for halting a problem that has cursed many largely poor, rural states.

The ads have inspired poems and raps. High school groups have replayed them in place of morning announcements and devoted newspaper issues to them. Students readily quote dialogue and characters from the commercials and cringe recalling, for instance, how a methamphetamine-addicted teenager in one ad calmly plucks out her entire eyebrow, oblivious, in her drug-induced compulsion, to the blood and pain.

In a state of fewer than a million people, it can seem that every parent meeting turns to talk of "those ads."

"People are talking about this like I've never seen anything in our state," said Attorney General Mike McGrath, whose office was flooded with hundreds of calls, pro and con, demanding to know who was behind the ads. "When they first came out, I couldn't walk anywhere without someone asking about it."

At Flathead High School on the edge of Glacier National Park in northwest Montana, students complained that the television spots were too gross to watch first thing in the morning, but they did watch.

"It's like a car wreck - you can't take your eyes off it," said Dillon Foley, 18. "It's totally gross, totally graphic. You know it's going to be bad, but all you can do is watch it go down."

The project reflects frustration with fighting the methamphetamine problem, which began here about a decade ago and is enough of a public concern that a meeting about it on a recent Friday night in Kalispell drew 600 people.

Like most states, Montana has restricted pseudoephedrine, the cold medicine that is the key ingredient in homemade methamphetamine, only to discover that demand for the drug remains just as high and has been met by imported methamphetamine.

State officials say the drug is responsible for 80 percent of the prison population - and 90 percent of female inmates - and about half the foster care population.

"It's destroying families, it's destroying our schools, it's destroying our budgets for corrections, social services, health care," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer. "We're losing a generation of productive people. My God, at the rate we're going, we're going to have more people in jail than out of jail in 20 years.

"If this thing works, it can be a template all over rural America," he said.

The commercials ranked in the Top 20 on AdCritic.com, a Web site covering the advertising industry, and Siebel has been asked to speak to the National Governors Association and before a congressional town hall. People mob him at speeches around the state, offering ideas, testimonials, checks.

"You may not like the ads, but they're effective," said Robert A. Nystuen, the president of Glacier Bank in Kalispell, who approached Siebel after a presentation and offered to sponsor radio ads.

Peg Shea, a former drug-treatment specialist who signed on as the project's executive director in late September, said she started out a skeptic, considering most anti-drug commercials "dorky." "Then I saw these ads and heard them," she said. "I saw the quality and the impact."

Siebel, who recently sold the software company he founded to Oracle, his former employer, began hearing of methamphetamine's damage while fishing with a sheriff friend. "There's a human tragedy of magnificent proportion taking place here," Siebel said. "I don't think putting everyone in jail is contributing to a solution."

Few think the ads will stop addicts; the aim is to deter new ones. While users tend to be over 25, the project focuses on teenagers, who are at an age when decisions about drug use start.

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