Social awareness and social stigma have long gone hand-in-hand, specifically when addressing the dangers of drugs and alcohol. From the early anti-drug propaganda films of the 1930s to the famous “This is your brain on drugs” PSA campaign that launched 50 years later, the message has always placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of those most vulnerable—the addicts themselves.
But as society continues to evolve, and our understanding of drug and alcohol abuse shifts, the need to reach—not punish—those most at risk has become a growing imperative. With one in three American households dealing with addiction, and drugs and alcohol being the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 30, the time to build an authentic dialogue is now.
This is why Viacom set out to not only create a conversation around addiction, but also weave through it a narrative informed by TV audiences and experts in the field.
The Listen campaign was born out of the company’s long-standing history of supporting social action, including MTV’s Look Different (a campaign to raise awareness about racial, gender, and LGBT biases), Spike’s VOW (Veteran’s Operation Wellness), and important corporate-wide initiatives like Get Schooled (dedicated to using the power of media, technology, and pop culture to improve high school graduation rates and college-going rates). To commemorate the release of the Surgeon General’s first-ever report on America’s addiction epidemic, Viacom set out to launch a national campaign (in partnership with non-profit Facing Addiction) directed toward family and friends of addicts by giving them the information and education they needed to start a conversation that connected with compassion—not contempt.
The first step was to gather feedback by talking to audiences from Viacom’s portfolio of brands that had been directly impacted by the epidemic. Extensive research showed that 76 percent of Viacom fans aged 13-54 have dealt with addiction in some way. And while their responses varied, two key threads were immediately evident.
“Eighty-one percent of our audience wanted to help solve the problem, but only 16 percent knew where to go,” explains Alexandra Tuck, vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility. “This was something we needed to pay attention to. We have megaphone, which meant we could create a positive ripple effect.”
This initiative was further informed by the need to move beyond the typical PSA drug campaigns of the past. Based on focus groups of former addicts, supporters, and experts in the addiction space, the team at Velocity (Viacom’s marketing and creative content group) was inspired to not only create a unique content narrative—including an on-air cross-network special, a series of PSAs, social content, radio, print, and outdoor activations—but also to build a digital platform for those touched by addiction, providing resources and tools for a positive dialogue. Resources on the site heretolisten.com range from personal video testimonies and easy conversation starters to tips on how to avoid communication barriers.
“We approached the Listen campaign as an opportunity to do just that,” explains Niels Schuurmans, EVP & CCO of Viacom Velocity. “To listen, learn, and use the insights shared with us to further shape our vision. The stories interwoven throughout the campaign are raw, and while we’re not shying away from that, we’re not pointing fingers either. The old anti-drug campaigns didn’t help people—they looked for someone to blame. We tried to move as far away from that as possible.”
Tuck strongly agrees that the campaign’s fresh take is working to break down important barriers. “Part of the reason for the treatment gap is the shame and stigma that holds people back from seeking help,” she says.
In rethinking the path to recovery, the Listen campaign sets a new precedent by not pushing an agenda. Instead, it allows those most affected to choose the tools they need based on their own experiences. But it also forces us to ask an important question: If social awareness no longer works as a one-size-fits-all approach, what does that mean for future drug campaigns if individuality and inclusivity both hold equal weight? Is curation the key to change or does self-empowerment begin to emerge once stigmatization is no longer a factor?
IMAGES COURTESY OF LISTEN CAMPAIGN