A young girl approaches a group of men outside a convenience store. “Hey guys, you can do anything you want to me for 50 bucks,” she says. The men eye her for a moment, and then one gestures to an even younger girl off to the side. “What about her?” he asks. The girl glances back at her sister. “Sure,” she says. This isn’t normal, a voice intones as the men lead the girls, whose faces are visibly marked by sores, into a dirty bathroom. But on meth, it is, continues the ad.
Through dark, graphic anti-drug ads like this, the Montana Meth Project (MMP) has been telling the ugly truth about methamphetamine addiction for the last decade. It’s a messaging campaign begun in response to what was then an epidemic of meth use in the state, one that was not only ruining individual lives but devastating communities throughout Montana. “We were seeing the effects straining law enforcement, employers, foster care, public health and the criminal justice system,” says Amy Rue, executive director of the Montana Meth Project. “It was truly a public health crisis that needed a dramatic response.”
An answer materialized thanks to Thomas Siebel, a tech billionaire, philanthropist and part-time Montana resident. Disturbed by the grip the intensely addictive drug had on the state, Siebel gathered together business and political leaders, added his own time, talent and money, and in 2005, the nonprofit Montana Meth Project was born. Its goal was to reduce meth use through a large-scale prevention program that included community outreach, public policy initiatives and impossible-to-ignore public service messaging aimed directly at the young.
Today, as the group celebrates its 10-year anniversary, teen meth has been more than halved in Montana, according to statistics from the Montana Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 2005, 8.3% of teens reported ever trying meth; in 2013, the number was 3.6%. Methamphetamine-related crime and social service costs have dropped as well, says Rue.
Exactly how much of that progress can be linked directly to the MMP has been disputed, however, and Rue is quick to note that the organization can’t claim all the credit. Other efforts have been instrumental, she says, notably restrictions on over-the-counter sales of pseudoephedrine, a key ingredient used to make the drug, and the work of law enforcement, drug task forces, the federal marshal’s office and other anti-drug organizations throughout the state.
Still, she notes with pride, “surveys done by the Montana Meth Project and the state of Montana have shown that we’ve changed attitudes and reduced meth use among teens. Day after day, people tell us the same thing: We’ve changed the way an entire generation in Montana views meth.”
In 2006, the White House called the organization “one of the nation’s most powerful and creative anti-drug programs.” And in 2010, Barron’s magazine named the MMP the world’s third-most-effective philanthropy, above such heavy hitters as the Clinton Foundation and Oprah Winfrey’s Angel Network. Along with praise for the organization’s life-saving efforts, Barron’s lauded the group’s “ripple effect”; the Project’s model and creative campaigns have been replicated in a number of other states across the U.S.
Harnessing Fear and Disgust
When it launched, the Montana Meth Project quickly made waves with its provocative, no-holds-barred messaging, much of it created with the help of top names in the entertainment industry. Alejandro González Iñárritu, Oscar-winning director of Birdman, for example, directed the “Sister” TV ad described above. Images of teens ravaged by meth’s most dire consequences — the open sores, the prematurely-aged faces, the sexual degradation in search of a hit — soon became ubiquitous on TV, radio and billboards and in print ads across the state.
Why take such a dark route to enlightenment? “The effects of meth were so devastating — not just to the user but to everyone around them and the community as a whole — that we believed we needed to portray the reality in a graphic way,” explains Rue. “We wanted teens to understand how destructive meth is and all the risks they could face if they made a decision to try it.” The goal, she says, was to “unsell meth.”
With the help of focus groups and teen input, the Montana Meth Project honed a campaign designed to evoke both fear and disgust. The idea was this, Rue explains: “Can you make a product so unsavory that teens, instead of being drawn to it, will actually distance themselves from it?” A 2012 study by Arizona State University researchers confirmed that the powerful combination of fear and disgust encourages “distancing behavior.” Study participants evaluated several messages, including a MMP ad showing a teen picking imaginary bugs out of his skin, a compulsion sometimes seen in meth users.
The researchers determined that fear, on its own, can prompt confused reactions but disgust encourages strong, immediate avoidance. Putting the two together, as the MMP had, makes messaging “more effective in terms of persuasion and compliance,” the researchers concluded.
“We were one of the first organizations to use this approach,” says Rue, “and when the ads launched in 2006, they were incredibly different from anything anyone had seen in an anti-drug campaign … I think we truly changed the conversation about meth.
Prompting Teen-to-Teen Conversations
Today, the MMP continues to use traditional media outlets, but funnels most of its messaging through its online portal, MethProject.org, “our go-to, definitive source on all meth-related content,” Rue says. “Teens want to consume the lion’s share of their information on a digital platform, and we shifted our campaign to respond to that desire.” On the website, notes Rue, visitors can get all their questions about meth answered, often through interactive displays. For example, click on the question “Will using meth change how I look?”, and the visitor will be asked to match up real before and after mug shots of users — a disturbingly difficult task. In a “Speak Up” forum visitors can share personal stories as well as artwork, poems and videos. Meth Project ads can also be watched. “We’ve given [visitors] this amazing library of content where they can click on something that is relevant to them and share it directly through Facebook, push it to Twitter, share it on Instagram. Now it’s a teenager communicating the risks of meth to another teenager, which is that authentic conversation we’ve been striving for and is really the basis of this campaign,” Rue says.
The site helps hammer home the group’s “Not even once” message and encourages teens to spread the word. This year offers a special way to do just that – the return of “Paint the State,” a public art competition. Past campaigns in 2006 and 2010 asked teens and their communities to create highly visible works of public art with an anti-meth message. The result was thousands of entries that appeared everywhere – on silos, buildings, buses, even on sheep and cows. “In all, the public art pieces blanketed nearly 30,000 square feet across the state,” says Rue.
For the 10th anniversary, “Paint the State” will ask teens to share their anti-meth creations online. “If you have a barn and you’re willing to paint it, paint your barn and share that message. If you’re better with GoPro, cut a 30-second commercial about how to share with your friends the risk of methamphetamine,” Rue says. Submissions will be placed in one of three categories — digital art, monument-size art and art smaller than three feet; each category offers $10,000 in prize money. And for the first time, Rue says, the competition is open to the entire nation. A link to details about the competition will be available on MontanaMeth.org in April.
The battle against meth in Montana (or anywhere else) is far from won, though. Rue notes that, according to the Department of Justice, the amount of meth coming into the U.S. from Mexico has been increasing over the last few years: “We are seeing more meth on the ground. It’s cheaper and it’s more potent than we’ve ever seen in the past.” And as each generation ages, another comes along that needs a reminder of the same truth — that meth is not a harmless party drug, but intensely addictive and potentially devastating. “It’s why we remain relevant and still vigilant,” Rue says. “We’re not done yet.”
Images courtesy of the Montana Meth Project