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‘Meth. We’re on it,’ South Dakota says in ridiculed ad campaign that cost $449,000

South Dakota debuted a new awareness initiative to address the state’s methamphetamine problem on Nov. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)
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South Dakota is on meth — at least, that’s the message behind a new anti-drug ad campaign so widely mocked that one marketing expert could only laugh before calling it “a colossal blunder.”

The “Meth. We’re On It.” awareness initiative was unveiled Monday by South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem (R) to address the state’s methamphetamine crisis. In a news release, officials underscored the importance of combating drug use in a state where twice as many 12- to 17-year-olds reported using meth compared with the national average.

“South Dakota’s meth crisis is growing at an alarming rate. It impacts every community in our state, and it threatens the success of the next generation,” Noem said in a public service announcement. “This is our problem, and together, we need to get on it.”

“Let’s get meth out of South Dakota,” she added.

The state’s Department of Social Services paid a Minneapolis ad agency nearly $449,000 this fall for the effort, the Argus Leader reported, citing the state’s finances website. Several of the advertisements feature photos of people stamped with the “Meth. I’m On It.” motto. Noem also requested more than $1 million in funding to support meth treatment services, according to the news release, and a website — — promises to connect residents to preventive and treatment resources.

But Bill Pearce, assistant dean at the University of California at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, said any sincere messaging by the governor was lost by an ad campaign that embodies “poor strategy and poor execution.”

“I can’t imagine this is what they intended to do; any good marketer would look at this and say: 'Yeah, let’s not do that,’ ” Pearce said. “I’m sure South Dakota residents don’t like being laughed at. That’s what’s happening right now."

Pearce said the advertisements — which are placed on television, billboards and posters — feel like domestic policy more than an actual effort to reach the people who need the resources.

“This is not about trying to find people in the tough parts of town that are hiding from society and using meth,” he said. “This is about telling everyone in the state: ‘I know we’ve got a problem, and I’m addressing it.’ Nobody thought about the ramifications. The Twitter reactions are hysterical.”

By Monday evening, social media had a field day with the slogan and accompanying ads, which, many said, make it sound as though everyone in the state is using the drug.

Beth Egan, an associate professor for advertising at Syracuse University, had similar concerns about the ad. Her first reaction, she said, was: “What were they thinking?”

“One of the things that struck me is, obviously everyone gets the play on words, they’re trying a twist,” she said. “But what they’re missing is that advertisers no longer have control over the conversation. You need to be mindful of how consumers are gonna take it and run with it in their own way.”

Egan was also struck by how much South Dakota spent on the campaign when about 882,235 people live in the state.

“I know they’re not necessarily looking for a financial return, but that’s a lot of money,” she said.

Appearing to respond to the backlash in a Sunday evening tweet, Noem bought into the adage that any publicity is good publicity. She suggested the campaign was successful because so many people were talking about it.

In a separate statement emailed to The Washington Post, she called the anti-meth initiative “a bold, innovative effort like the nation has never before seen.”

“South Dakota’s anti-meth campaign launch is sparking conversations around the state and the country,” she said. “The mission of the campaign is to raise awareness — to get people talking about how they can be part of the solution and not just the problem. It is working.”

But Pearce isn’t buying it.

“There’s another trope that goes, ‘When they’re running you out of town, pick up a baton and pretend you’re leading the parade,’ ” he said. “That’s what this feels like.”

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