Q&A: Drug-free Partnership Ditches 'America'


The drug choices facing a typical teenager -- and how her parents respond to them -- have changed radically in the last decade, and Madison Avenue's response is changing, too. The organization has changed its name to The Partnership at and is extending its reach to parents of kids who are already using and launching expanded services and support. Marketing Daily asked Steve Pasierb, president/CEO, to tell us what's new in anti-drug marketing and how far the organization has come since its "This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs."

Q: First, you ditched "America" in your title. Why the name change?

A: We became increasingly aware that our name was a problem. As soon as you said "Partnership for a Drug-free America," people would say something like "Do you really think there will ever be a drug-free America?" So you were back on your heels right away. "Drug-free" works -- parents either want to keep kids drug-free, or if they have a kid using drugs, they want it to stop. And "partnership" was magic, too. The word "America" was the problem. We don't reflect a moral or legal agenda, but a family agenda. These parents need answers and help, and they are our core customers -- our old name didn't say that.



Q: So the emphasis is on reaching parents?

A: Yes. Something like nine million teens and young adults are struggling with drugs or alcohol, yet there is so little out there to help parents deal with it. When we do focus groups, it is inevitable that some parent will say "I wish my kid had cancer -- then there would be advice and support, and people would rally around me." We can give that suburban mom the tools she needs to intervene, help her find the right kind of treatment, connect her with other mothers in the same situation -- and take some of the shame and stigma away. What should you do if your kid gets drunk on the weekend? What do you say? Who do you call? How do you pay for treatment?

Prevention is the most efficient way to deal with the problem, but it doesn't always work -- and these parents need answers. It means we are becoming more like other disease-specific organizations.

Q: How are parents of teens different from when you launched back in 1986?

A: They are the most drug-experienced parents in history. Today, you are more likely to find the parent of an 8th grader who did drugs than an 8th grader who has. And media is different. We shifted primarily to digital back in 2005, and we are continuing that, using lots of social marketing, as well.

Q: How much impact can a parent have?

A: The research is irrefutable: Those kids whose parents talk to them about the risks of drugs and underage drinking are half as likely to use. Yet only 30% of kids say they get that. (Of course, some kids just aren't hearing it -- 89% of parents say they've talked about it with their kids.)

Q: What about pot, now that it's become more or less legal in so many places?

A: These initiatives are normalizing marijuana as part of society. Both kids and parents view it as a safe way to get high, with no downside.

Q: Is that true of prescription drugs, too?

A: Yes. A kid will say, "I don't smoke pot. But I take Adderall to help me get through a test, and then I cop some Vicodin to calm down. It gives me a bad-ass badge, without the risk." Only a very little bit of the kid's decision has to do with getting high.

Q: Can you use marketing to scare kids away from drugs?

A: Scare tactics can work, if you use a relevant risk message. You can't tell these kids marijuana will kill them -- it won't and they know it. You can tell them it may make them drop their tray in the cafeteria in front of a girl they like. And to a middle-schooler who isn't worried about death, that is a very relevant message. There was a point when Ecstasy use was increasing 70% a year -- our messages showed how many kids wound up in emergency rooms. They worked -- it was based on fact, and kids got that.

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