A cool use of Facebook Timeline, but does it communicate the message?

Written by Victoria Louise Crump-Haill – Digital Strategist/Account Director‏

The new Facebook Timeline has been used in a striking social media campaign against drug use. The Anti-Drugs timeline created by advertising agency McCann Digital Israel sets out to show a year of drug use compared to a year of clean living. The hard-hitting campaign displays the profile of a man called Adam Barak, and uses a ‘split page’ style to highlight the physical toll of heavy drug taking over a year. Users can also scroll down the page to see the stages of Barak’s demise, his ‘downward spiral’.

The campaign certainly is clever to use Facebook’s new Timeline feature, and points to the endless possibilities that the Timeline could offer. But in terms of communicating effectively with addicts and even deterring young people from becoming drug users in the first place, the campaign appears to fail.

Commissioned by Israel’s Anti-Drug Authority, the campaign portrays Barak in the stereotypical Trainspotting image. After a year with drugs, the ‘junkie’ is red-eyed, covered in bruises, unshaven and dirty. He has lost his girlfriend, been thrown out of his house and forced to sleep rough on the streets while begging for change to fund his habit. But how effective is this as an advert? As many people who actually deal with drug users know, they do not all fit this stereotype.

In fact, this type of flawed reporting or exaggurated campaign has the potential to cause drug-users to distrust the media. If an individual’s experience does not tally with media portrayal, they may not only disregard that information, but also distrust all the information they are given. For example the amount of coverage given to ecstasy related deaths, coverage which does not tally with many young peoples’ experiences, may mean young people are less willing to accept the media reporting on the longer term health implications of ecstasy.

The campaign clearly depicts a drug ‘addict’ in comparison to a user. Barak is portrayed as someone whose whole life is turned upside-down by substances; someone who has become psychologically dependent on narcotics to ‘feel normal’. If a real drug addict came across this campaign, do you think they would drop their needles and seek help at the nearest clinic?

In comparison, many frequent drug-users who would be likely to come across Barak’s timeline are independent, active professionals who are not lacking in self-esteem. Unlike Adam Barak’s ‘drug persona’ they have jobs, houses and families. So how do you effectively communicate an anti-drugs message to this group of people?

According to the website DrugScope:

‘Hyperbolic stories do not scare young people away from trying drugs as many may think, in fact evidence suggests that it may even achieve the opposite result. Research has also suggested that the prominence given to ecstasy related harm in the media, has, rather than encouraging young people not to experiment, simply switched their drug of choice from ecstasy to cocaine, a drug generally recognised as much more harmful. Scare stories may also cause parents to react in an inappropriate way to drug use, which can alienate young people and drive them further away from help.’

Furthermore, a recent international review published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (2011) makes this startling admission:

‘…do antidrug media campaigns prevent drug use? This first systematic review finds no strong evidence that they do and some that they can have the opposite effect.’

It cites a study of secondary school children who saw anti-cannabis adverts and then were randomly allocated to engage or not engage in an on-line ‘chat’ about the ads.

‘Compared to those who did not, youngsters who chatted following exposure to the ads subsequently recorded more pro-cannabis and less anti-cannabis beliefs or attitudes, more peer pressure to use cannabis, and less disapproval of cannabis use by adult authority figures.’

So what we can we glean from this information and reaction to the Anti-Drugs Facebook Timeline campaign? Certainly the idea of an authoritarian ‘one size fits all’ war on drugs is hopelessly inaccurate. The biggest challenge for an anti-drugs campaign is how to get young people to say no to drugs when they probably have friends who said yes to drugs and liked it. Most of the time, it’s even their friends who are encouraging them to take drugs in the first place. In order to effectively communicate in this area requires an understanding of motivation, behaviour, and the power of social influence. Drugs have different effects and different risks, so young people need information about the dangers at a more local level.

Rather than bullish imagery of vulnerable drug addicts, anti-drugs campaigns would do better to take a pragmatic and realisitic approach, providing honest and up-to-date drug information while encouraging informed debate. It is drug education delivered in the proper context (rather than gimmicky social media campaigns) that have far more potential to reduce drug misuse and to delay the onset of experimentation. And Facebook has already removed Barack’s false profile for breaking it’s terms of service anyway.

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