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Montana Uses Shock Tactic in War on Drugs


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Like many states, Montana is confronting a serious problem with methamphetamine. Unlike many states, Montana is the part-time home of a software billionaire. He's spent millions to blanket the state with anti-meth ads designed to horrify and to shock. This radio spot features a girl named Cindy from Browning, Montana, who started doing meth when she was 12.

(Soundbite of Montana radio ad)

CINDY (In radio ad): No, I thought it was going to be a one-time thing. I didn't ever think that it was going to get me by the throat and strangle me until I was, you know, stomped into the ground. It was, it gets you pretty fast. I started stealing from my parents and, like, stealing money. It came to the point where I was selling myself for meth. That was the lowest that I've ever gotten.

BLOCK: The Montana Meth Project is being funded by Thomas Siebel. He calls the state's meth problem a human tragedy on a magnificent scale.

Mr. THOMAS SIEBEL (Chairman, Montana Meth Project): A good friend of mine is a county sheriff and they have 17 sheriffs in Cascade County. They spend 100 percent of their time busting methamphetamine labs as far as I can tell. It's just pandemic in the state of Montana.

BLOCK: How did you turn from that, that level of problem in the state of Montana? How did you come up with this idea for the ad campaign?

Mr. SIEBEL: It occurred to me that it might be effective to conduct a very large-scale experiment in prevention. And that's what we're doing with the Meth Project. So our target audience is 12 to 17-years-old, and we are reaching them with a saturation level advertising campaign. In the last six months we've delivered 30,000 minutes of TV advertising in the state of Montana, 30,000 minutes of radio advertising, billboards, print. We reach 90 percent of the young people in Montana age 12 to 17 three times a week with our messaging.


Mr. SIEBEL: We are the largest advertiser in the state. Larger than, you know, than McDonald's or Budweiser or General Motors. There is no PTA meeting, there is no town council meeting where the subject of methamphetamine is not discussed, and the subject of the Montana Meth Project is not discussed.

BLOCK: When you sat down and tried to figure out how to reach this target group, as you're describing it, these 12 to 17-year-olds who, you know, can be a jaded bunch these days. How did you come up with what your strategy would be?

Mr. SIEBEL: Well, we did a great deal of research and it became very apparent that, you know, we could not use authority figures. We could not use teachers or highway patrolmen or what have you, that when you try to reach them with this type of messaging that the volume on the message goes to zero, and the volume on the iPod goes up, and they just tune you out. So our research suggested that we had to reach them on a peer-to-peer basis.

BLOCK: The TV ads that are running, the whole point of them seems to be to shock the teenage audience. There's one of a meth user plucking out an entire eyebrow and there's another one that I'd like to play for you now called That Guy.

(Soundbite of TV ad That Guy)

Unidentified Male #2: I'm only going to try meth once. I'm not going to be like that guy. Hey look, I'm only going to smoke meth once. I'm not going to be like that guy. Look, I'm just going to shoot up just, just once. All right? I'm not going to be like that guy. I'm, I'm, I'm not going to be like that guy.

BLOCK: Now, in this ad the teenager starts out as a normal looking kid and by the end, as you can hear, he's a frantic, twitchy, bloody mess and he's shooting up methamphetamine.

Mr. SIEBEL: He's become an addict and that's what these ads show. Researchers tell us this is amongst the most addictive of substances known to man. And so we're showing in this ad the effect of addiction.

BLOCK: Do you think you might run the risk of over saturation when an ad that was shocking maybe the first or second or third time you see it, by the twentieth or thirtieth time people aren't paying attention? The kids have become used to this.

Mr. SIEBEL: We're doing a lot of work on this. And the research that we've done and the experts' advice is that we can run these ads at this level for about six months before we begin to see significantly diminishing returns. So we plan on replacing these ads in six month cycles, and then every six month we're going to redo our consumer research to track changes in attitudes and changes in behavior amongst young people and young adults in the state.

BLOCK: You know Mr. Siebel, there've been a lot of anti-drug ad campaigns over the years and I think that the track record would show that most of them don't succeed. That a lot of money is spent and very few minds are changed. What makes you convinced that your effort will be more successful?

Mr. SIEBEL: Well, it's an experiment and it might not be successful. It's not a certainty. It's like any product. We're just, rather than selling a product we happen to be un-selling a product in this case. Some cases it has been done enormously effectively. Witness the American Cancer Society with their work on cigarette smoking. It was remarkably effective. And in other cases, you know, going back to, you know, Reefer Madness with marijuana, it had no impact at all.

BLOCK: Thomas Siebel thanks for coming in.

Mr. SIEBEL: Thank you.

BLOCK: Thomas Siebel was the founder of Siebel Systems. He's now Chairman of the Montana Meth Project. You can find a link to their ads at our website, Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.