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With Real-Life Stories, White House Ad Campaign Aims To Prevent Youth Opioid Abuse

In the space of 30 seconds, four new national ads each tell the story of a young person who falls into opioid abuse, becomes trapped in addiction, and is driven to risk their lives or limbs to feed the habit.

The ad campaign, formally called "The Truth About Opioids," was announced by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) and targets teenagers and young adults. The White House is partnering with the Ad Council and other groups to broadcast the ads online and on television.

The images are graphic and, White House officials say, based on true stories that highlight how easily people can become addicted.

"We are communicating directly with the public in a way that will really sharpen the mind to see what is happening with individuals across this country, the extreme length that they will go to," White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said in a conference call with reporters.

One ad, called "Amy's Story," features a young woman driving a car, who says she was prescribed the opioid painkiller Vicodin after a knee operation. "They kept prescribing it, so I kept taking it," she says, as she guides the car toward a trash dumpster.

"I didn't know how far I'd go to get more," the voiceover says, as the young woman removes her seatbelt and plows the car into the dumpster in an apparent effort to injure herself.

The other three ads are similar, showing young people intentionally breaking their hands with a hammer or in a door; in another, a young man intentionally causes a car to fall on him, breaking his back.

Robin Koval, CEO of Truth Initiative, a public health organization working on the ad campaign, said more than 150 possible anti-opioid messages were considered and tested for their effectiveness. She said they were evaluated based on criteria including whether they increased viewers' understanding of the risk of opioid abuse and reduced their willingness to illegally share prescription drugs.

"We know that these messages are motivating to young people," Koval said.

Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University, said the ads are reminiscent of another ad campaign — "Your Brain On Drugs" — from the 1980s.

"They are designed to terrify and portray people who have drug problems as freaks," Humphreys said. "There is no evidence that scare tactic commercials make people less likely to use drugs."

Casey Newmeyer, an assistant professor of marketing at Case Western Reserve University, said research on effectiveness of public health campaigns is mixed.

Newmeyer said that some very specific campaigns have been shown to work. "The Real Cost" campaign sponsored by the FDA in 2014, she said, likely contributed to a drop in the number of youth that smoke regularly. But the Reagan administration campaign didn't have much impact.

"One possible reason for this is that 'The Real Cost' campaign helps youth switch from a short-term to a long-term mindset," she said. "It makes you think about the impact of decisions today on your future. Additionally, it used messages that directly impacted youth."

Since his campaign, President Trump has promised to fight the opioid epidemic. In October, Trump declared the crisis a "public health emergency," and said he would launch an ad campaign focused on young people.

Trump stopped short of declaring the epidemic a national emergency, which could have freed up additional funds for treatment. Some critics said the declaration did little to help people seeking help for addiction in places where treatment centers are often overwhelmed and underfunded.

First Lady Melania Trump also has said she will make the opioid epidemic and its impact on children a focus of her "Be Best" policy initiative. It launched last month, but so far the White House has made few details available about the initiative's next steps, and there's been no indication that the new ad campaign is linked to "Be Best."

A spokesperson said Melania Trump was supportive of the ad campaign.

A spending bill passed by Congress in March included $2.8 billion to fight opioid addiction.

Jim Carroll, acting director of ONDCP, told reporters that none of those funds will be used for the new ad campaign. He said it's being funded with "very few government dollars" along with donated time from media partners including Facebook, Google, YouTube, and Turner Broadcasting System, among others.

An official with the Ad Council, which is partnering with the White House on the project, estimates the campaign will be worth more than $30 million.

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Sarah McCammon worked for Iowa Public Radio as Morning Edition Host from January 2010 until December 2013.
Sarah McCammon
Sarah McCammon is a National Correspondent covering the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast for NPR. Her work focuses on political, social and cultural divides in America, including abortion and reproductive rights, and the intersections of politics and religion. She's also a frequent guest host for NPR news magazines, podcasts and special coverage.