If you're an emoji-illiterate old person, like me, that string of pictograms above probably reads something like "Hi sleep F beer NG peace bicep box." But the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the anti-drug group behind the anti-drug ads of your childhood, hopes that it means something completely different to today's teens: they've recently launched the world's first emoji-only anti-drug PSA campaign.
The campaign features cryptic strings of emoji characters that will appear in ads in print, online, in theaters, and even on billboards in New York's Times Square. Emoji-fluent kids who see the ads can head over to the campaign's mobile-only website, wegotyou.life, to see more. The campaign has secured roughly $8 million in pro-bono ad space, according to the Partnership.
“The entire campaign was born out of a very simple idea: speak to teens in their language," ad copywriter Amanda Roberts said in a statement. "It just so happened that language was emojis. Linguistically they were the perfect fit for our audience – emojis are today’s teen slang."
Translated, the message at the top of this article reads "I'm tired of drinking to fit in." Another reads "I want to fit in, but I don't want to smoke." Yet another: "I wish being in high school easier." Overall, the thrust of the campaign is less "drugs will rot your brain," and more "it's tough being a teen and you're not alone." This represents a sharp departure from the tone of anti-drug PSAs of even just a few years ago.
If some adults are skeptical of this campaign or bewildered by it, "that's exactly what we're hoping for," said Andrew Hertzberg, the Partnership's Director of Youth Programs, in an interview. "We're speaking to teens, not speaking to adults here. We hope that teens will embrace this messaging, will share it and create their own."
Only question: will it work?
The research on anti-drug messaging is mixed. Much of what we know comes from evaluations of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a now-defunct billion-dollar media blitz created by an act of Congress in 1998. Reviews of this campaign were sobering: one analysis of the first five years of the campaign found the ads had no effect on kids' marijuana use or intentions to use, and in fact may have even increased a desire to smoke pot among some kids. A subsequent audit by the Government Accountability Office came to roughly the same conclusions.
But the Partnership for a Drug-Free Youth says its latest work, like the emoji campaign, has learned from earlier campaigns and improved upon them significantly. "Prior anti-drug advertising could have been somewhat preachy, often there were horror stories or fear tactics used," said Hertzberg. The newer campaigns, which take place under the aegis of the Partnership's "Above the Influence" initiative, are "supposed to represent the authentic voice of teens -- it's peer-to-peer, it's an empowering message rather than a fear tactic. It takes into account context of a teen's life," Hertzberg said. He points to several academic studies showing promising results for Above the Influence campaigns.
But some researchers are skeptical. Carson Wagner, a professor at the Scripps School of Journalism, has studied how adolescents respond to anti-drug campaigns, and he agrees that previous work by the Partnership's Above the Influence initiative have been quite good. But he doesn't think the emoji campaign will replicate that success.
"For a long time, over 25 years now, they [the Partnership and its predecessors] have been kind of mocked by their target audience for being behind the times," he said in an interview. He points to the infamous "I'm not a chicken, you're a turkey" tagline of one early 90's TV spot featuring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as one of many examples.
The emoji ads are "an obvious attempt by the Partnership to bridge that gap, to get to a place where they're communicating on a level with their target audience - youth and adolescents," Wagner says. "I think it's a really creative idea. I think that they took it at least a few steps too far. Nobody writes an entire message in emoji." He thinks the campaign "is likely to draw the attention of the target audience, and then it is likely to draw the mocking. You're likely to see t-shirts that mock that campaign in all emoji."
Joseph Palamar, who studies drug use among adolescents at New York University, says that the new campaign is a step forward from the heavy-handed tactics of the past. In an e-mail, he wrote that "I’m glad this emoji message isn’t stigmatizing like messages from the 1980s. Stigmatizing or ostracizing users can lead to riskier or more secretive drug-taking behavior." He added, "this was a clever idea, but I honestly don’t think it will prevent teens from using."
In fact, Scripps' Wagner is worried about just the opposite -- that the emoji campaign is so creative and eye-catching, and causes such a curiosity gap among viewers, that it might actually lead to increased ideation of drug use among teens.
His past research has shown that certain types of media campaigns make kids more likely to think about and want to try drugs: "What I showed was that compared to youth who saw no anti-drug ads, those youth who saw anti-drug ads within the same TV program just spliced in with the other adds were more behaviorally curious. They were significantly more likely to want to experiment with more drugs as compared to those who had not seen the ad," he said. He thinks the curiosity gap instilled by the emoji ads may produce the same effect.
Advertisements that directly engage kids with the subject of drug use essentially "bring drugs into their living rooms," Wagner says. Whether that's the case here remains to be seen.
Your turn, now: how well do you understand all-emoji PSAs? Take the quiz below to find out.