South Dakota’s new campaign is actually pretty smart

Central Ohio’s “Don’t Live in Denial” campaign was launched in 2018 to address Ohio’s growing opioid epidemic. It centers on a fictional town called Denial, Ohio with chipper citizens living in blatant ignorance.

The campaign arose from research that suggested most people know about the opioid crisis in Ohio, but many do not believe it to be a risk in their personal bubble. The ‘Don’t live in Denial’ campaign aims to reduce this blindness by portraying the issue literally. Ads feature neighborly citizens of Denial claiming that prescription drug abuse could never happen to their town or precious children. They all end with a clear CTA: Talk to your kids about opioid abuse.

Recent surveys deem the campaign effective, as a majority of respondents said they did take time to talk with their children about prescription drugs. Yet results also indicate that most people still underestimate the likelihood of opioids affecting their family.

It’s great that this multi-million dollar campaign achieved its primary goal, and I’m not saying in any sense it is wasted effort. The memorable commercials have certainly garnered some attention and laughs. But is the scope of the campaign wide enough for lasting impact and change? What about people who don’t have children? What about those who don’t live in quaint, distant suburbs? What about the very people trapped by the drugs?

Why shouldn’t a campaign addressing a dire situation aim to make as many people as possible care? Why not put action in the hands of all people?

Enter South Dakota.

While much of the country is laughing and asking, “What on EARTH were they thinking?” I support South Dakota’s recently launched anti-meth ad campaign.

At first glance, it’s easy to see why the message is the subject of criticism and jokes. The logo literally reads as if the entire state is on meth. Did nobody proofread the materials before running them? They paid how much for this ludicrous slogan using taxpayer dollars?

Calm down everyone. Smart marketing and PR is not always black and white. And in this situation, interpreting “Meth. We’re on it” simply as “We’re all on meth” is not accurate. It’s an underestimation of the time and effort that goes into a large scale, widely public campaign – especially one hitting on an intense topic.

There are numerous articles and sources that fully explain the governor’s initiative and the ideas behind the messaging. This was not a spur of the moment, lazy campaign. States don’t always make popular decisions, but they at least put thought behind them. Half a million dollars spent without months of planning, revising, and reviewing would be absurd. If SD hadn’t wanted to approach this project with deliberation and intention, they would not have put it in the [expensive] hands of an expert.

Meth use and addiction is a widespread problem in South Dakota, and most citizens probably know that. It’s fitting that state leaders wanted to take it a step further and make people care about the problem, inspiring them to unite against it. The “on it” campaign was created for this purpose, with the high level message that meth addiction is affecting real people with diverse lifestyles and backgrounds – not just those who are traditionally viewed as vulnerable to drug use. And because it’s grown to such a massive epidemic, it must be viewed as every South Dakotan’s problem. You can further dissect the wordplay of the campaign theme, “on it”, into two meanings: 1) “On it” as in, “Our state has a problem; many of our citizens are affected by meth use”, and 2) “On it” as in, “We’re proactively taking a stand and committing to fixing this.”

As a marketer, I applaud the generally quiet Midwestern state for choosing a bold response to a bold problem.

At the very least – which I suppose there should always be a bottom line goal in PR and marketing – people are paying attention. The nation is thinking about the message, even if they’re interpreting it incorrectly or only at face value…and making memes about it.

But South Dakota leaders wanted something broad and provocative, something that wouldn’t disappear behind all the clutter; The usual “Don’t do drugs, kids” wasn’t going to cut it.


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