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Chillin' With Uncle Sam 

Feds to teens: Just say no, dude

Wednesday, Sep 15 1999
Photo by Alex Munn
THE STRANGEST SITE ON THE INTERNET HAS TO be www.freevibe.com. Check it out if you're skeptical, and read the bizarre postings about the dangers of illegal drugs. They are written in the style of Seventeen magazine, in which grownups pepper their prose with the buzzwords of youth, like, uh, cool, man. But you could browse a long time and learn all about young Jake in the grip of addiction, "tabbing acid during basketball games," before discovering that the man behind the site is, in fact, The Man.

You would never know it, but Freevibe is pure government-issue, a product of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the White House. That office is best known for sending armed agents into crack dens and having its director, former General Barry McCaffrey, tour Peru on a mission to stop cocaine production in the Andes. But Freevibe is as much a part of the war on drugs as the helicopters and crop-eradication routines. It is just a more covert salvo, and the war here is for the minds of America's teens.

This effort took a major step forward a few weeks ago, when the White House launched Phase III of its $183-million-a-year National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Phase III of this blandly named program has the astronomical ambition of cleaning up the culture's mixed messages about drugs. "It is a comprehensive social-marketing campaign," says Alan Levitt, director of the NYADMC. "The reason you are wearing your seat belt today is because someone convinced a scriptwriter on those cops-and-robbers shows to have the cop put on his seat belt before the car chase. It's not just ads, it's the whole culture, from faith-based organizations to the schools to coaches to media and the Internet. It's surround sound."

As a key territory on the media map, the Internet is a must-win zone for the government, if real change is to â occur. And that means countering the myriad pro-drug sites on the Net. In addition to revamping Freevibe to better reach its target of 11-to-13-year-olds, Phase III calls for a widespread Web ad campaign. High-volume sites will be asked to host celebrity chats pushing the line that staying straight is cool. Another anti-drug site for kids, Proj-ect kNOw, is also slated for revision. AOL's search engines are already onboard with the new program. Just type in "drug," and you'll soon be looking at a banner about the nightmare of cocaine, although you might not realize it's Uncle Sam talking.

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The result of this blitz will be to increase the reach of the anti-drug mantra. The goal, explained by President Clinton at a press conference for the campaign's new stage, is "If you're a teenager or a parent, it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing or hearing our anti-drug messages." Clinton promised the push would eventually "outdo the Star Wars promotion." But, unlike Star Wars, this campaign will be subtle -- and fun! The Freevibe model differs from Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" effort in that it lacks a dour slogan. That's because a panel of behavioral scientists called in by the White House drug-policy office determined that harsh words and ultimatums turn kids off. The soft sell is a more effective way to reach vulnerable minds.

"Scare tactics don't work too well. Neither do the slogans," says Levitt. "We were very concerned about having this campaign become a mockery on Saturday Night Live."

So don't expect to see many more commercials comparing a brain on drugs to a fried egg. The future is in Freevibe -- which has already won a prestigious design award -- where the message blends seamlessly with the medium in a version of government propaganda that's barely distinguishable from entertainment. Indeed, while every word of Freevibe is vetted by White House­approved "experts in the fields of advertising, youth behavior and youth focus groups," the ideas for copy flow through creative powerhouses like Ogilvy & Mather and Fleishman-Hillard, both of which are consultants to the site. And the production of the slick layout was aided by none other than Disney. Who else would have thought to include a game of Intergalactic Escape along with copy that says, "Hey! There are thousands of things to do that are a) more fun, b) cooler, c) cheaper, d) healthier and e) generally way better than drugs!" The list includes volunteering, sports and, at the top, "making money."

Click on "making money," and the site reminds teens of this universal message: "It's all about the Benjamins, baby. Get a job, start a business, get you some of those greenbacks!" Or, suggests Freevibe, pass the drug-free time by cleaning out the closet, and "blast the new Red Hot Chili Peppers . . . for inspiration." Several Chili Peppers, by the way, have publicly admitted to using drugs.

  • Feds to teens: Just say no, dude

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