The Inner-City Anti-Drug Campaign


By 1991, after five years of Partnership advertising aimed at the general population, public attitudes had become increasingly anti-drug and drug use had declined by about half. However, there was no conclusive evidence that disadvantaged teens living in urban neighborhoods were being reached effectively by the campaign.

One of the initial problems The Partnership faced in assessing America’s inner city drug problem was the dearth of good data and academic literature on the topic. The prevailing stereotype was that drugs were an urban problem, an African-American or Hispanic-Latino problem, and that these kids and their parents were alienated, doomed to lives of dealing and addiction, unreachable by mass media. It was also widely believed that urban children had favorable attitudes toward drug use, and a careless attitude toward risk-taking, that “life is cheap.”

Suspicious of myths unsupported by fact, The Partnership undertook an extensive study in 1991 to gain a better and more sophisticated understanding of the urban youth audience. Our overall learning was that the stereotypes about the inner city drug problem were false. The surprising consensus of the experts we consulted was that a media campaign could, in fact, make a meaningful difference in resolving this problem.

Also surprising was that the vast majority of inner-city kids was against drugs and dealing in their attitudes. Analysis of all the research findings showed that they had the same goals as the mainstream population of kids, but lacked reinforcement, recognition, and encouragement in negotiating their way through a drug-laden environment. “Because of the racial stereotype about urban culture, this group of kids was unseen, a ghost population,” said Ginna Marston, director of the Inner-City project. “They had witnessed the damage of crack firsthand, and wanted to steer their way around the drug culture, but were getting little encouragement. We were confident a realistic approach that recognized their struggle could encourage them to avoid both drugs and dealing.”


After careful analysis of the urban drug problem, The Partnership created a campaign uniquely tailored to reach inner-city children. Creative strategies were developed, and 15 advertising agencies, including the leading minority-owned firms, who worked in close contact with the community organizations and experts, took on pro bono assignments. The goal was to reinforce anti-drug attitudes among inner-city children before and during early adolescence, to predispose them not to get involved in drug use or the street drug culture.


The success of the campaign in changing attitudes toward drugs among inner-city youth was readily apparent. Pre-launch and follow-up research with 8,000 New York City elementary school children found dramatic shifts across a range of attitudes even during the first year of the campaign.

Perceptions of the physical risks of drug use, already high, increased among NYC children in below-poverty schools. The top-ranking risk of drug use among preteen children overall, parental disapproval, increased +3 percentage points, to 93 percent between 1992 and 1993. More than 90 percent of the second and third graders believed that using drugs could make them feel bad about themselves or make them get sick, and they were 10 percent more likely to report being scared of using drugs (87 percent). By contrast, the perceived benefits of drug use became even lower than they had been. New York City below-poverty children were much less likely to agree that using drugs could make them more grown up (16 percent), or “cool” (14 percent), down 18 and 17 percentage points, respectively. Television was the only source of reported information that significantly increased among below-poverty preteens from 1992 to 1993, from 66 to 70 percent, suggesting a correlation between the intensified media weight and the impact of this targeted campaign.

In 1994, the New York chapter of the American Marketing Association presented The Partnership and Goodby Berlin & Silverstein with advertising’s most coveted award – the Gold “EFFIE” – for the effectiveness of its national, anti-drug public service advertising campaign. It was also the first time a public service campaign had won back-to-back Gold awards (1993 and 1994).

In addition, The Partnership’s campaign was presented with arguably the highest level of recognition afforded a communications campaign – the “Grand EFFIE” which represents the single most effective advertising campaign in America – regardless of if its media is paid or delivered via a public service campaign.

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