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Federal government airing BYU students' anti-drug campaign nationwide

Drug czar's agency picks ads created and produced by advertising undergraduates

When Michael Richardson was sweating out the details of his advertising homework, he had no idea it would earn not only a good grade but also the approval of the U.S. government's drug control agency as a nationwide anti-drug campaign.

Then a Brigham Young University advertising major, Richardson was part of an advanced class that gives students real-world client challenges. The work he and his classmates created so impressed officials at the Office of National Drug Control and Policy that the students went a step further and produced the television, radio and magazine ads themselves. After being unveiled by the federal "drug czar" at a campus event June 30, the spots are running on television shows, radio programs and in magazines across the country.

"It started out as a senior class project and didn't seem like a big deal at the time," Richardson says. "At first I treated it like any other assignment, trying to do my best work and make it relevant. But this time it was a project I actually believed in. Now it's like having your homework end up in front of the nation."

Richardson's campaign revolves around teens who are proud of the choice they have made to be themselves and shun marijuana. The slogan he devised is, "I am my anti-drug."

"We were supposed to challenge adult perceptions of teen behavior," Richardson says, recalling how, during his late teens, he sometimes felt unfairly judged by adults. "I remember very vividly when I was walking in a neighborhood and I saw a kid who was about 8 years old. He recognized me as his swimming coach, and I smiled back at him, but his mother looked at me like, 'Who are you to look at my kid like that?' I felt stereotyped and scanned, and that sentiment resonates with teens."

Now officially part of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, the ads will air during programs targeted to teens on NBC, ABC, Fox, MTV and other networks through the summer. The print ads are appearing in magazines like "Sports Illustrated," "Teen People," "Seventeen," "YM," "Surfing," "Snowboarding." The radio ads are running on rock, contemporary hits and country stations across the dial.

The extraordinary involvement of college students in the nationwide campaign began through a relationship between Richardson's BYU professor, Doug McKinlay, and professionals at New York-based Ogilvy & Mather. The agency is the advertising contractor for the ONDCP's National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Ogilvy staff occasionally shared with McKinlay's students the campaign's strategic goals and messages, known in the advertising industry as a "creative brief." The professionals also offered feedback and mentoring on the students' efforts via teleconferences, which took place in early 2003. The intent was to simulate real-world experience for the students, not to use their results in a campaign. Once their submissions arrived in New York, the professionals were surprised by what they called "superior quality work."

"There was a really unique freshness about the BYU work," said Vanessa Harmatz, partner/management supervisor at Ogilvy & Mather. "Having college-age students, who are not far from the targets' age, work on the campaign certainly helped with understanding the audience's mindset. The work as a whole was on strategy, with a confident, proud youth voice."

Qualitative research with teens eventually narrowed the "BYU work," as it came to be known, down to the campaign Richardson conceived.

It was so successful in focus groups that McKinlay and his students moved forward to develop radio and TV concepts, as well. When those tests came back positive, the BYU participation was further along than anyone had anticipated. With the unexpected reception, McKinlay went out on a limb and offered to have the students produce the ads themselves, at no cost.

"I made a mental inventory of the resources available at BYU – photography students, film students, a film studio, a radio studio and more," McKinlay recalls. "I thought, 'Why not do them ourselves?'"

Drawing on funds from the Scripps, Ashton and Laycock endowments, McKinlay and the students produced the fully integrated campaign in November 2003 for under $10,000 – a result Ogilvy officials estimate would have cost $600,000 to produce professionally.

The team turned to the student bodies of BYU and nearby Provo High School to find models, actors and voice talent. The television ads were shot, under the direction of BYU professor Chris Cutri, on a set at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo, while the radio ads were recorded in the studios of KBYU-FM. A student photographer shot the art for the print ads in an alley off Provo's Center Street.

After the finished products were packaged and shipped off to New York, there was still a nerve-racking wait for the BYU group as the ads were again tested by what McKinlay calls "the toughest target audience in the world – 14-16 year olds."

Harmatz explained, "All ONDCP advertising must pass rigorous copy-testing criteria; namely, an ad must move marijuana-related beliefs and intentions, which is a huge feat after for an ad seen only once or twice."

Now that the creative work is done, McKinlay says, "Our only hope is that at the end of this campaign there will be fewer teens smoking marijuana than ever before in this country."

The combination of public service while striving for academic excellence is what makes this project's success such a highlight for BYU, says the dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications.

"Solving pressing social problems while preparing our students for their chosen careers is the essence of BYU education," says Stephen Jones. "Mentoring our students so that they learn by doing is our academic aim, while helping them develop their character through service is our moral imperative."

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