Saturday, June 17, 2006

Officials seek hard-hitting anti-meth ads

The Arizona Republic

A gritty series of advertisements featuring teens discussing the real-life horrors of methamphetamine could soon come to a television screen, newspaper or billboard near you.

The ads got their start as part of the Montana Meth Project, an effort to saturate the airwaves in that state and leave at least one imprint on teens considering trying the drug: Meth ruins lives.

Buoyed by initial research that indicates the effort is having an impact, Arizona officials now hope to bring the ads to this part of the country. Software billionaire Thomas Siebel, who inspired and funded the Montana Meth Project, was in Phoenix on Tuesday to introduce the program to officials from across Arizona.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard is one of its biggest boosters. He declared that meth is a "serious problem" for the state, and is calling for a coalition of public and private interests to help fund a homegrown version of the Montana Meth Project.

Arizona could become the first state to adapt and begin running the slate of Montana ads. Spots could be on the air as early as September.

Montana Meth Project ads drew fame initially for their shock appeal: One TV spot shows a young man robbing customers of loose change at a Laundromat. A radio ad features the voice of a Montana teen talking in frank terms about how her pursuit of meth led to prostitution.

The images don't leave you. That's the point.

"It's prime-time," Siebel said. "And it's all kids talking to kids."

But the tone of the ads also has made some Arizona legislators squeamish about funding the program. Others question its effectiveness, especially since a poll of a random-sampling of Montana teens has yet to be conducted. Siebel points to Internet surveys that indicate his message is getting through to teens, young adults and their parents.

"I'm convinced, as a career law-enforcement person, this program is working," said Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath, who also was on hand for Tuesday's demonstration.

"In Montana, it's astonishing what it has done."

The meth project's strategy is simple: Carpet-bomb the airwaves and other media with piercing images and messages that tiptoe the precarious ground in a teen's mind between shock and disbelief. In Arizona, the hope is to connect with 70 to 90 percent of the audience ages 12-17 at least three times a week.

While the Montana Meth Project began as a private effort, funded this year and last by Siebel, he hopes that private and other state interests take over funding in that state by 2007.

The effort is somewhat backward in Arizona. Here, it's expected that government funding will have to get the program off the ground, to the tune of more than $6 million for the first year.

Maricopa County officials have tentatively devoted $2.5 million for the program in the coming year's budget.

Supervisor Don Stapley said he hopes that the state's other 14 counties will contribute an additional $500,000.

Several million dollars also is planned from the state, though its budget talks remain ongoing.

In the meantime, Stapley said, private funding for the project is already beginning to materialize.

The county has even received at least one donation, which it had to return since the non-profit group that will oversee the program in this state hasn't yet been formed.

By Matthew Benson


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