NEWS IN FOCUS: Sex, drugs, alcohol: how to get your message across

Annie Kelly

One of the most difficult challenges for sex, drugs and alcohol charities is engaging their target audience enough to successfully convey messages without seeming to preach or patronise.

The holiday period is the busiest time of the year for charities dealing with the issues surrounding sex, drugs and alcohol. And at a time when we are seeing an alarming rise in the number of sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers, when recreational drug use is booming and a culture of binge-drinking is threatening the nation's health, it is more important than ever that charities get their messages across.

"Issues such as sex and drugs are enormous minefields for charities, because it's so easy to get it wrong," says Chris Arnold, director of advertising agency Feel, specialists in not-for-profit campaigns. "Lots of charity advertising comes across as very 'preachy', but the moment you start telling someone what to do you've lost them. Much charity campaigning still takes the do-this-or-die approach and it just doesn't work anymore."

How not to do it

Melissa Dear, spokeswoman at FPA, agrees. She points to the infamous 'Just Say No' government campaign of the 1980s as a classic example of how not to do it.

"The 'Just Say No' approach was proven to be almost totally ineffective," she says. "Such a hard-line preventative approach may have a short-term impact, but when you're looking to change behaviour patterns you need a message that really resounds because young people forget about being scared very quickly."

One way to try and move beyond such short-term impact is to get your message out to people at the right time and in the right places.

FPA is now adopting a 'journey to the bedroom' approach to its sexual health campaigns. By using postcards in lively bars and clubs where young people drink and socialise, they hope to remind people about safe-sex messages at times when they are most likely to engage in unprotected or promiscuous sexual behaviour.

But charities face intense competition when it comes to reaching young people with messages about sex and alcohol. It is well known that sex sells, and drinks brands have spent years honing their skills at promoting alcohol as a desirable lifestyle choice.

"It's an uphill struggle as charities are pitted against popular brands that have put enormous amounts of cash and time into targeting young people," says Eric Appleby, chief executive at Alcohol Concern. "Smirnoff recently spent £250m revamping its brand, whereas we have around £100,000 a year to get our message about safe and responsible drinking out there. The imbalance is huge."

Appleby says the crucial thing for charities to realise is that commercial brands have worked out that young people are very sophisticated consumers who don't respond to obvious sales pitches.

"Trying to put someone off drinking just doesn't work," he says. "What we're working towards is identifying the things about drinking that don't fit in with a young person's projected image of themselves, such as vomiting or embarrassing themselves, or a message that strikes a chord over issues such as personal safety."

And instead of seeking to battle against companies that appear to endorse a lifestyle of sex and alcohol, Andrew McGuinness, chief executive of advertising agency TBWA\London, says that charities should look to popular brands to learn more about how to effectively talk to the youth market.

"If you look at a client such as Absolut Vodka, its campaigns use stylish iconic imagery that communicates a great deal about the brand without the need for many words," he says. "There is still a convention within charity communications to over-explain and over-rationalise issues, and to underestimate the power of subliminal image-based communications."

Youth appeal

He also believes that charities need to move away from the role of 'concerned elder' and start cultivating a different kind of relationship with younger people.

"There are very few charities that make either the subject they're working with or the organisation itself appear aspirational, which is a tried and tested technique for appealing to a younger media-savvy audience," he said.

Charities should also be more inventive about the ways they represent their messages. The shock tactics of campaigns, such as the HIV/Aids campaigns of the early 1990s, were once a disruptive and new approach to communications with a startling impact on the public consciousness.

But as controversial images become everyday fodder for charities looking to provoke a reaction, the impact of shock tactics has been severely blunted.

John Neate, chief executive at the Prostate Cancer Charity, says that humour is a more effective weapon in the fight to get messages about sex, drugs or alcohol through to a target audience.

"Both our big public awareness campaigns this year used humour to get a serious point across, which worked extremely well," he says. "Making people laugh is a better way of making them remember a message than coming across as being earnest or patronising."

"We were also very careful not to suggest either endorsement or disapproval of any kind of sexual lifestyle in order to appeal to the widest possible audience."

Creative awareness

The National Aids Trust is putting messages about HIV/Aids back into young people's hands through the Young Creatives Network Awards, a programme that invites young designers to come up with a public awareness campaign about HIV to win the chance of a work placement at ad agency Saatchi & Saatchi.

"It's all very well to keep on harping on about safe sex, but you have to find different ways of keeping that message alive," said Keith Weinstein, head of campaigns at the National Aids Trust. "The Young Creatives competition will galvanise young people to actively engage with the issue of HIV/Aids, which is a lot more effective than trying to push a message to passive recipients."

Stay savvy

Weinstein believes that the most important thing is to know who you're talking to, and to recognise that charities will never be able to stop young people doing what they want to do.

"One thing about being young is that you never think you're going to get old," he says. "So young people won't respond to messages that tell them what they're doing now could have any long-term repercussions."

"All we can do is know our audience as best we can and give them the right information so they can make an informed choice. The most important thing a charity can do is to be non-judgemental, equip young people with the resources to make their own decisions and be aware of the consequences."

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