TERENCE SMITH: This anti-drug reference in ABC's "Home Improvement" was no accident.
ACTOR: Your life's on track now. You don't want to do stuff that will get you off track. You have got so much going for you. You have got so much to lose. I mean, how about your soccer scholarship?
ACTRESS: And the trust of a family who loves you.
TERENCE SMITH: It's one of a number of story lines, partly choreographed by the office of the White House drug czar in its media war against the use of illegal drugs. Since 1997, a campaign spearheaded by General Barry McCaffrey and his National Drug Control Policy Office has involved all six major broadcast television networks.
SPOKESMAN: Hey, what you doing?
CHILD IN COMMERCIAL: I'm just lighting up.
SPOKESMAN: You can't smoke pot inside of here.
TERENCE SMITH: Reviewing more than 100 scripts of popular shows such as NBC's "City Guys," the office has encouraged the insertion of forceful anti-drug messages.
SPOKESMAN: We need a ambulance.
DISPATCHER: Please try to calm down.
TERENCE SMITH: Here's how it works. The networks -- in exchange for millions of dollars worth of paid advertisements like these from the government -- were required to also run public service announcements for free. When the networks found the financial burden heavy, the administration came up with a new ringer: They would give the networks credit for part of their legal obligation if they would include a suitable anti-drug theme in the plot line of their entertainment shows.
ACTOR: They were hungry because they were smoking marijuana.
ACTRESS: There were drugs at our house?
TERENCE SMITH: This allows the networks to then sell more advertising time to top-dollar corporate sponsors. That has critics such as Pat Aufderheide, who teaches communications in the public interest, fuming. She worries about what she calls the slippery low pressure of government propagandizing through the private entertainment industry.
PAT AUFDERHEIDE, American University: This is an ugly little moment in American media because both sides have a lot to be ashamed of. The networks did a deal with the federal government where they negotiated the content of the programming that they would carry, and they got a nice tidy chunk of change out of it. They did well, they were rewarded. And the government went in and dangled a nice very big fat carrot in front of the private media, mass media services, and got its message out.
TERENCE SMITH: President Clinton defended Drug Czar McCaffrey's efforts, saying the arrangement is good business for the networks and good for kids.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: There was no attempt to regulate content or tell people what they had to put into it. Of course, I wouldn't support that. But I think he's done a very good job at increasing the sort of public interest component of what young people hear on the media, and I think it's working. We see drug use dropping.
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, despite the drug office study showing the campaign reaching young people, ABC, over the weekend, announced it has stopped trying to collect government financial credits for anti-drug messages in programs such as this one. ABC officials said they made their decision after President Clinton's drug advisor asked the see scripts before shows were aired.
TERENCE SMITH: Joining us to continue the debate about the White House anti-drug media campaign are Dr. Donald Vereen, the psychiatrist who is deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy; and Jeff Loeb, principle and creative director of Katz & Loeb Advertising, who has been making both corporate ads and public service announcements for the past 20 years. Welcome to you both. Jeff Loeb, let me ask you first. What's wrong with this arrangement?
JEFF LOEB: Well, I think this is a cases of good people inadvertently stumbling into a situation in which the appearance of collusion suggests a host of First Amendment government propaganda issues that are probably inappropriate, given the subject matter.
TERENCE SMITH: Government propaganda?
JEFF LOEB: Well, if you consider what a commercial advertiser tries to do in this situation, they try and put their products into programs -- we call that product placement -- as a way to influence behavior in a less measured or a less obvious fashion.
TERENCE SMITH: In other words, put a can of Coke in the -- on the table in the scene or something like that?
JEFF LOEB: What I think the government has done in this case is created a new genre called anti-product placement, which is where what you're doing is you're paying people not to do a specific behavior in the context of a program. It looks collusive; it looks bad; it makes people in my business wonder are things going to get harder for us to be credible and be trusted for the messages we put out?
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Vereen, what do you think of that, of those points, and of the credibility issue?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: It's, first of all, important to understand that the drug issue is a public health issue. It's no different than seatbelts; it's no different than campaigns to get people to take their high blood pressure medicine. What we've done is to come up with a media campaign that's based on science and used the creative community to get messages out there. We work with advertising experts to take scientifically based facts and present them to the young people today in a way that they can get these messages clearly. The messages -- the anti-drug messages -- the anti-drug help messages are captured better in programming. We know that from research. You get the message from ads, and then the messages get an extra oomph when they're in -- and they're a part of what a kid's favorite character would say on television.
TERENCE SMITH: And research tells you that?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: Certainly. And we've been working with the creative community for a number of years, even before the media campaign started. I'm a doctor. I used to work at the National Institutes of Health at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. We've been working with network executives, writers, and producers to get scientifically-based facts to the creative community, and they take that information and turn it into creative stories that get the true message out there. These ads are not just superficial. Every one has at its heart a scientifically based fact that's important for the prevention of drug abuse in this country for young kids.
TERENCE SMITH: Incidentally, I should point out to you both that we did ask representatives of the networks to come on and discuss this, and none was available today. Jeff.
JEFF LOEB: I don't disagree with Dr. Vereen. This is a clever media strategy in the sense that we know that to build a brand, or in this case an anti-brand, which is saying we don't like drugs, ubiquity, which means we're putting our message in surprising, unexpected places is effective. But we also know that children, in particular, from studies, repeated studies done, tend to resist messages they view as being deliberately targeted to them. When I said at the beginning that I view this as an inadvertent exercise, an inadvertent misstep, what I was really saying is that instead of publicly disclosing this at the front and saying we're going ahead with this, we're putting a credit at the end of the program to say this was prepared in cooperation with the government, what they've created is a situation where kids are going to say, "Oh, boy, they're trying to manipulate me," and we know from repeated exercises that that's not effective.
TERENCE SMITH: And you think kids are so either sharp-eyed or cynical that they would spot that?
JEFF LOEB: I think kids are conditioned right now to the manipulative nature of advertising in a way that even our generations could never understand. And I think it's really important that when you do things geared to their interests, which this is a legitimate public policy interest, that you disclose them. One other point. The fact is that the reason this is a problem is not so much related to the product. I quite agree with Dr. Vereen that drugs are a heinous evil. The question is at what point do you draw the line. If it's OK to do this in this case, which is anti-product placement, is it OK to do it for tobacco? If it's OK to do it for tobacco, is it OK to do for AIDS? If it's OK to do it for AIDS, is it OK to do it if there's a conservative administration that comes in that says it's going to be OK to do it for anti-abortion? If it's OK for the federal government to do it, what about the states? The lotteries are there to basically support the schools. What happens if the states start asking, "Well, we'd like to insert pro-lottery messages into our commercials?" They've entered into a situation which is difficult to control because the precedent is so unfortunate.
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Vereen, that's the question. Where does it stop? And as part of that, let me ask you explicitly, as far as you know, does the government provide financial incentives now to the networks to insert any other messages of the kind that Jeff Loeb was just talking about?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: I can answer the question by explaining very quickly the media campaign. There are media buys for ads. That occurs in April and May of every year for the following season that starts in September. According to the federal government, and it's here in the law, Congress in its wisdom said that if we're going to pay for prime time ad time to get the messages out -- that's when kids are watching the television -- then you're going to have to match that with a public service obligation, that is separate from the ad buys. There's a menu of choices that each network has to satisfy that obligation. It can come in the form of ads, not only the ones that we've created, but also other public service groups that are related to the drug issue can get credit. Programming is another way to satisfy that requirement. ABC itself came up with the idea of creating a Web site so that kids and their parents could get information about the drug issue. They came up with their idea on their own, and they got credit for it. They made the argument and they got credit for it.
TERENCE SMITH: When you say they got credit for it, there was financial credit?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: No, it's a public service obligation credit. Now, there's a value attached to it, but how they choose to satisfy that obligation is up to them. We make it very clear what counts and what doesn't count.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, now, this weekend you noticed that ABC decided it didn't want to do this anymore. The president of ABC said she was uncomfortable with it. I mean, what's the message there?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: The message there is that what ABC did is they satisfied their obligation completely with ads, but they also had tens of millions of dollars worth of programming that would also count.
TERENCE SMITH: Tens of millions of dollars?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Jeff Loeb, that's a big bottom line. Let Jeff Loeb comment on that.
JEFF LOEB: I want to say again, I don't view this as being deliberate or necessarily something that anybody went out of their way to be manipulative. I think it's unfortunate. And when we've hired a general to run the nation's war against drugs, you expect a general to bring all the resources at his disposal to bear on the issue. I think the precedent that's been set and the notion of the government even having any form of review of creative materials and then having it come out in this way is wholly unfortunate and needs to be addressed in a measured and reasonable fashion.
TERENCE SMITH: Dr. Vereen, let me bring you back to that earlier question. Are there now messages in programming that had been agreed with the networks against tobacco or any other substances that we don't know about?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: Probably.
TERENCE SMITH: Probably?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: I'm sure there are. I watch television every now and then, and there are messages out there that are within our message platform that haven't come to us. They probably could count.
TERENCE SMITH: How are we supposed to sort out what is the narrative as presented by the producers and what is encouraged by the government?
DR. DONALD VEREEN: This is a voluntary program. The satisfaction of the public service aspect of this is purely voluntary. We have no control over it. We just communicate what's expected, what the requirements are, and then it's reported to us.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Jeff Loeb, Dr. Vereen says that probably there are other messages. So where do you stop?
JEFF LOEB: When the doctor was talking about what's called the upfront buy in media, which is when the networks sit down with the big advertisers and talk about how much they're going to cost, there is no real rate card cost; there's no set cost. It's all negotiable. What the networks have done, at least from everything I've read -- and admittedly this is a story that's spun wildly out of control -- is they've proposed an alternate way to satisfy their financial obligation to the government. That suggests something of a collusive nature -- voluntary or not -- the networks are interested first and foremost in making money.
TERENCE SMITH: OK. Thank you both, Dr. Vereen, Jeff Loeb. Thanks very much.