CRANKING UP THE PRESSURE | Behavioral Healthcare Executive Skip to content Skip to navigation


July 1, 2007
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Advocates convince a national retailer to can a promotion involving a pen shaped like a syringe

For more than 60 years, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) and its National Network of Affiliates have served as an effective advocacy voice for issues pertaining to alcohol/drug abuse, alcoholism, and drug addiction. As a public health organization with advocacy at the core of our mission, we often have found ourselves in a position in which we must take a stand on issues that might help or hinder our lifesaving work. Our mission is to confront stigma and discrimination, as well as other evolving social “norms” that work against a more enlightened societal response to alcohol and other drug issues. Because of our history and visibility as an advocacy voice, the public often turns to us when concerns arise.

Such was the case in January when a citizen called the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse–St. Louis Area, an NCADD Affiliate, to express his concern about a Circuit City ad in his Sunday newspaper. The ad included a promotion for the movie Crank, offering a free ink pen shaped like a hypodermic syringe to anyone purchasing the DVD. In talking with Dan Duncan, director of community services at the Affiliate, the caller stated that he found the promotion to be “highly inappropriate.” Dan investigated and, after seeing the ad, agreed that it was exactly as the individual had described—a completely inappropriate promotion. The question was, how best to respond?

Building off Past Success

NCADD St. Louis along with other Affiliates and advocates recently had participated in an organized campaign to contact national retailers about the drinking games they were selling. The campaign's goal was to convince the retailers to remove these games from their shelves because they encouraged and promoted alcohol abuse. Our individual and collective efforts produced the desired result: Target, Kohl's, and Linens ‘n Things each agreed, one by one, to pull the games from their stores.

Where to Start?

As a first step, Dan contacted Circuit City and spoke to Public Relations Representative Jim Babb, who said he was unfamiliar with the promotion but agreed to take a look at it and asked Dan to express his concerns in a letter or e-mail. Dan sent an immediate e-mail saying that the ad “trivializes the seriousness and often tragic aspects of drug addiction.” He urged Circuit City to drop the promotion and asked for a prompt response.

Who Else Could Help?

Next, Dan contacted Robert J. Lindsey, president of the NCADD national office in New York City, to discuss the issue. After reviewing the ad on Circuit City's Web site, Bob immediately wrote a letter to Circuit City's CEO, which said, “[I]ntravenous drug use and addiction has devastating consequences for thousands of individuals, families and communities across this country! Circuit City's decision to promote this movie in this manner is tasteless and irresponsible.” He went on to say, “[A]ddressing the devastating impact of alcoholism and addiction in this country is a responsibility that we all share. I am asking that Circuit City do its part, by avoiding the promotion of irresponsible and dangerous behavior through the merchandise you choose to sell and how you market it. Towards that end, I respectfully ask that Circuit City remove the Crank promotion from your website and your store shelves immediately.”

Immediate Response—Success

The next day we received a response from Babb: “First, please allow me to say that we appreciate your concerns and value the important work done by your organization. We recognize that the syringe is a powerful and negative image in society, and we acknowledge the promotional giveaway of a syringe-shaped ink pen with the DVD is in poor taste.” The result was an immediate halt of the promotion.

Follow-up and Thank-You

We appreciate and applaud Circuit City's prompt response and good corporate citizenship. As a result of its action, we immediately wrote thank-you messages to Circuit City and encouraged other NCADD Affiliates to do the same. As important as it is to hold people accountable, it is equally important to praise them when they are responsive.

Speak up, Speak out

Advocacy is nothing more than targeted education, and it is both necessary and effective. Our experiences with both the syringe ink pen and the drinking games are examples of just that. Truth is, these represent relatively small examples of when an advocacy response is needed. When it comes to our burgeoning social preoccupation with alcohol and other drugs, and the continued discrimination against those who suffer from alcoholism and drug addiction, there is no shortage of opportunities and need for advocacy.

Regrettably, American culture continues to embrace a higher threshold of tolerance for just about anything, including the abuse of alcohol and drugs, while simultaneously being intolerant of those who become addicted to alcohol and other drugs. Look at what kids watch on TV, including the themes and language of sitcoms. Look at how products are developed and advertised—alcohol being a prime example. Look at the lifestyles of celebrities highlighted on TV every day, and look at our movies and music culture. Look at our evolving cultural norms. You cannot miss alcohol and drug abuse being promulgated as a matter of fact (perhaps even as a cultural expectation?).

NCADD, its Affiliates, and other advocates across the country recently have become involved in two other efforts. One is focused on pointing out negative messages on T-shirts being sold in family-style stores that include overt messages of sex, drugs, and alcohol. Some might argue that this is harmless humor or satire. But is it? Is it humor or is it a symptom of a society that allows its youth to be seduced by unhealthy messages?