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‘Meth. We’re on it.’: Spokane ad agencies divided on South Dakota’s viral campaign

Nov. 19, 2019 Updated Tue., Nov. 19, 2019 at 7:10 p.m.

Materials from South Dakota’s viral “Meth. We’re on it.” campaign. (
Materials from South Dakota’s viral “Meth. We’re on it.” campaign. (

South Dakota’s viral “Meth. We’re on it.” awareness campaign has been facing backlash and mockery since introduced on Monday, but Michelle Hege’s response was concern.

Hege is the CEO of DH, the Spokane advertising, public relations and branding firm behind the Washington Healthcare Authority’s Opioid Prevention campaign “Starts with one.”

“I guess my first reaction was, ‘Oh no, they’re going to get a lot of attention and, maybe, not all of it helpful attention,’ ” Hege said. “At the end of the day, the proof’s in the pudding. I’m sure they’ve got a good evaluation plan in place to look at results over time, but I did feel concerned that it may just create noise that doesn’t actually drive the behaviors that they’re looking to drive.”

When developing the “Starts with one” campaign – which will be in its third year in January – DH did extensive research into the targeted audiences, working with them directly to understand their knowledge, beliefs and values regarding opioid misuse. Selling a product is difficult, but altering behavior is much more difficult, Hege said.

“It’s difficult to change people’s behaviors, but this is also some of the most important advertising and communications work that’s out there,” Hege said. “This is our favorite kind of work to do because it’s a way to make a positive impact in the world.”

While the “Meth. We’re on it.” campaign did not appeal to Julie Graham, Washington State Department of Health public information officer, she said she did not want to judge the campaign, and thinks it could still be successful for its audience.

“When a group is trying to reach a very specific audience, the messaging can either be offensive or really miss the mark with the audience that’s not intended to see it,” Graham said.

Graham said she once encountered backlash for an HIV prevention campaign that encouraged those recently released from jail to use condoms and receive screenings.

“You might need to have a message that’s very unique to the population that might be at risk, and then you would want to put it in a place where you felt like it would have the best chance of reaching that audience, so you might have a little edgier message,” Graham said. “If somebody from the general public saw it, they might think, ‘Wow this is a little over the edge’ or they might think, ‘Why are they putting it here?’ It’s because it’s meant for a specific population.”

Targeting audiences is key in making dollars go further, Graham said, offering the example of a recent domestic violence prevention campaign.

“We were trying to reach young males, and we were doing our advertising on gaming sites, because we did some research that showed that that’s where a lot of young men were spending more time,” Graham said. “It can seem like there’s a thousand choices for where to put your money and where your audience might be looking now, but there is a benefit in having choices that are very audience-centric.”

Jeff Sanborn, president of Chapter & Verse, a Spokane and Seattle advertising and design agency, said he thought South Dakota’s campaign – run by a Minneapolis-based firm with a budget of $449,000 – was meant to raise eyebrows.

On Tuesday morning, he posted materials from the campaign on the wall by the dining table of the company’s kitchen, where he posts new marketing findings and other things for members of his firm to ponder.

“OK, great, let’s be provocative, let’s get people to notice it and talk about it, but I don’t think people are talking about it in the way that you want them talking about it, right?” Sanborn said. “What’s America talking about? South Dakota’s got a meth problem, so that’s not the best thing for the South Dakota brand.”

Sanborn said the campaign made the mistake of burying the message. That message is that anyone using meth is a problem for everyone and “we want to try to help,” Sanborn said.

“The problem is, we tell clients all the time, they’ll put the heart of their message somewhere deep in their third paragraph,” Sanborn said. “If that’s the core and heart of your message, you better make that the five words that everybody in America reads.”

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