“Meth. We’re On It.” — What worked, what didn’t, and why it matters.

South Dakota’s unveiling of a statewide campaign focused on meth addiction, severity, prevention and recovery landed like an early Christmas gift on the desks of late-night hosts, comedians, and teenage meme-makers alike. “Meth. We’re On It.” is the trademarked slogan leading the campaign — a double entendre meant to indicate that a) South Dakota has a meth addiction issue and b) it will take every South Dakotan working together to eradicate this problem. “We’re on it,” is clever, provocative, and yes, a little bit hilarious. But is it bad for the state? And did it accomplish the goal, as Governor Kristi Noem claims, of starting a necessary conversation about meth addiction? Did we overpay for the creative work, design and development, and consulting? Should the creative money have stayed in the state instead of being outsourced to Minnesota? Should the campaign continue for the 6 months it is slated to run? Does it matter? (It matters.)

In 2017, the South Dakota Department of Social Services (the same department in charge of this current campaign kerfuffle) released a Methamphetamine Prevention Toolkit that offered some statistics, sourced from the South Dakota Attorney General’s nomethever.com website that included meth related statistics regarding arrests from 2006–2016. There was a height in 2013 of 39 meth labs discovered within the state, and arrests, according to these statistics, were at their highest in 2016 (the last year shown on the report) with 2,687 meth related arrests in the state.

Alongside the nomethever.com website, a campaign was launched in fall 2016 by the South Dakota Department of Social Services called “Meth Changes Everything.” This was geared at educating highschool students and communities about the dangers of meth use, the effects on families and communities and the resources available for individuals battling meth addiction.

In other words, this new campaign, “Meth. We’re On It.,” has already been done, just three years ago, and you didn’t even know it happened.

So — South Dakota has a meth problem. And we have a messaging problem. We have a problem where regular South Dakotans are going about regular South Dakota days unaware that their fellow South Dakotans are addicted to meth, making meth, distributing meth, and dying of meth. The rates of use and abuse are rising, and scary (South Dakota population, according to a 2018 estimate by the U.S. Census Bureau, is 882,235.) Imagining that population and estimating over 2500 annual meth-related arrests indicates that one quarter of 1% of our state has been arrested for methamphetamine use. This is not insignificant, and is a higher rate of arrest (and, of course, users and abusers outnumber those arrested for use and abuse) than we see in most American states.

The message matters. “Meth Changes Everything” was a boring slogan and campaign that failed to grab our attention. “Meth. We’re On It.” is a ridiculous assertion that immediately caught our attention, garnered our outrage, and yes, opened a conversation about these statistics and the depth and sweep of a problem that perhaps we were unaware of before Monday.

I have heard that nine South Dakota marketing firms responded to the RFP from South Dakota DSS. I have not seen these proposals — the slogans or campaigns that were suggested or the budgets attached to those quotes. Broadhead, LLC — the Minnesota firm awarded the campaign contract pitched a provocative and compelling ad campaign — with a goal of problem awareness and a secondary hope of pushing users and abusers as well as concerned community members towards valuable services and resources via the (perhaps poorly named) www.onmeth.com website. I think Broadhead did their job. The design, though not graphically detailed, is eye-catching and the slogan, though fodder for late-night comedians, is succinct and, on second glance, important. Good design, done by good people with good ideas should absolutely be paid good money. The contract paid to an out of state firm who absolutely did their job is not something I’ll take issue with or touch. Do I think that there are reasonably talented artists and marketers in South Dakota? Yes. Do I think a South Dakota firm, given the opportunity, could have messaged this as well or better and that the dollars spent on the campaign would have then been re-invested into our state as families were built, non-profits were donated to, and homes were purchased by good designers doing good art in this good state? Yes. But the debate shouldn’t be focused here — it doesn’t matter now. The money was spent, the campaign was started, and now we’ve got a bit of a mess.

So what next?

Any good message has a follow-up. It’s why we send “save the date” cards months before the wedding and a formal invitation a few weeks prior. Messages are best when they’re first eye-catching and compelling and then reiterated, built upon, re-worded for clarity, and spoken often and always to an audience that stays engaged. Where “Meth. We’re On It.” is failing, at this point, in my opinion, is to follow the compelling punch line with the action steps that take a few days of meme-worthy content and create long-term change.

Guess what? That’s not on Broadhead. That’s not on the marketing firm. That IS, absolutely and completely, on our state leadership and the Department of Social Services, who built and blessed this campaign, to provide. I expect that the message should be clarified, built upon, and re-communicated to South Dakotans, now that we’re paying attention. We’re on meth. Ok. How? What’s my actual part in building a better South Dakota. Awareness is the laziest form of action. Now that we know Meth is a growing problem in our state, how can we move the conversation into saving lives, not laughing about a risky subject with a huge price tag?

“Meth. We’re On It.” got us talking. It did what 2016’s campaign failed to do. Now we’re informed and aware, as a state population. But talk is cheap (or, 1.35 million dollars) and lives are valuable. This matters because the teenagers who think meth is a AMC TV show with witty and gritty characters or meth is a cheap substitute to Adderall or meth is punchline of a statewide joke are going to be less likely to stay away from the substance when it’s offered. This matters because it actually isn’t adorable to hear little kids talking about being “on meth” when their peers are in an overcrowded foster system because their parents are actually on meth. And it matters because right now we’re paying attention, and our attention span is brief. A quick script flip with actual, actionable, steps for engagement, is an important way to follow a provocative message and keep people not just talking, but doing.

We’re South Dakotans. We’re hard working and innovative. We like tradition and history and we like to sit in front of our grandparents and the fireplace they built and hear stories of progress. We honor our Native American value of tiyospaye, the kinship of living in harmony with our fellow man — trusting one another and doing good by our brothers and sisters. We’re South Dakotans and we want to work harder and faster and stronger and longer and yes, we’re on meth because we’ve misunderstood the drug’s quick bite and deep sinking teeth. And we’re “on it” because together we can start to tell a different story to our children — about the ways that addiction leaves scars up and down our history and into the future — about the ways we pivot from a playful take on words and a compelling double entendre to a lost life in a second. Meth’s no joke. And neither was the goal of this compelling campaign.

Now you know. You’re on it. What’s next?

Telescope, microscope, vision. To the moon. www.natalielafranceslack.com and www.verbstorytelling.com