Since the '90s, illegal manufacture and use of methamphetamine has swept across the US. Tennessee has been hit particularly hard: In 2004 and 2005, it ranked second for meth lab seizures.
Understanding that law enforcement can't do it alone, Gov. Phil Bredesen authorized funding for an effort, in conjunction with the state's district attorneys general, to raise awareness of meth's effects on users, their families, and their communities.
"The over-riding strategy was to design and implement a campaign that would cut through the clutter of generic, national, and state anti-drug campaigns that've been served up for years," says Katy Varney, partner at McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations.
To develop a campaign that would resonate with Tennesseans - particularly school-aged youth and their parents - about the dangers of meth, they used focus group research to determine the most effective approach.
"It was discovered that the most credible sources to carry the message were former meth addicts who are Tennesseans," Varney says. Medical professionals were also considered good sources.
Moreover, the study found that the effects of abusing the drug on physical appearance - rotting teeth, scabs, weight loss, and gray, leathery skin - would be much more of a deterrent among teens and preteens than general health risks or its illegality.
And, with a relatively modest budget for a statewide effort, the DAs utilized partnerships with 55 state and community entities.
Materials were splashed with revolting images, such as blow-ups of "meth mouth," a condition common in habitual meth users that results in rotting and deteriorating teeth and gums owing to the chemical ingredients.
Other tactics included aggressive media relations; radio and TV PSAs; billboards; printed materials, such as brochures and posters; the MethFreeTN.org Web site; e-newsletters; an anti-meth statewide task force; a teacher's guide; a youth leadership council; and targeted materials for campaign partners.
Wherever possible, the materials were customized for each of the 31 judicial districts.
"We had never done anything like this, and while we weren't sure what to expect, the end results exceeded our expectations," says Guy Jones, Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference deputy director.
Meth Destroys garnered 9.7 million media impressions in 10 months and 470,000 impressions through partnerships, Varney says. MethFreeTN.org has received 4.2 million hits since its launch nearly a year ago.
"The DAs believe this public education is making its mark," Varney says. "Observers credit the campaign's increasing awareness, along with new, stricter laws and increased enforcement and penalties, as reasons why Tennessee has seen a 50% decrease in meth labs in the last year."
"The district attorneys' efforts are ongoing, and they continue to take the anti-meth message into schools," Varney says. "They hope to use a similar model for educating youth about dangers of abuse of prescription drugs."
PR team: Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference (Nashville, TN) and McNeely Pigott & Fox Public Relations (Nashville, TN)
Campaign: Tennessee's Meth Destroys education campaign
Duration: September 2005 to August 2006
Budget: $1.5 million, with more than $1 million dedicated to hard costs
A generation ago, a frying egg was hailed as a brilliant substitute for depicting a brain on drugs. Today, it isn't that simple. The Tennessee District Attorneys General Conference and McNeely Pigott & Fox knew from their research that, graphic as the images might be, the most effective way to get the anti-meth message across was to show how the drug affects the users' physical appearance.
Splashing those images all over a wide variety of campaign materials successfully drove home the point that meth destroys.
Valiant though its efforts may be, law enforcement needs assistance like this initiative to face this problem effectively.