How should we talk about drugs?

New anti-drug abuse ads aimed at parents debut as controversy around legal use and distribution heats up.

Even as debates about the legal status of marijuana rage, Health Canada is trying to let Canadian parents know the reasons why they should still talk with their kids about drug use.

The television ads, which began airing on Tuesday, aim to provide a practical demonstration of what drugs can do to the bodies of teenagers. In the ad, smoke slowly fills glass tubes that make up a model version of the brain, staining them brown. The other spot focuses on prescription drug abuse, where pills inside a glass replica of a young body explode, splattering paint inside the imitation organs before the whole thing shatters.

“We know when we’re teens, we think we’re invulnerable,” says Gavin Drummond, one of the creative directors on the campaign for Ogilvy Montreal. “That was the key with the glass, it allows us to cover two notions. The transparency shows what is actually happening inside of the body or brain, plus that metaphor of fragility.”

Drummond adds the shots were done live with actual glass models, with only minor use of CGI effects. Ogilvy handled the planning with media taken on by Cossette.

This new anti-drug abuse campaign comes at a time when the legal status of marijuana has become a national debate and Health Canada has begun licensing the highly regulated sale of marijuana by private distributors for medical purposes. This seems to raise an issue, with the same government body also producing public messaging about its negative side-effects.

“We have all those conversations and raise them with the client. We can challenge [them] on certain things, and it’s a constant give and take,” Drummond says of the environment around the subject. “But no matter what your opinion is, as adults, I think we agree that no one wants kids getting high without thinking of the repercussions.

“It’s a government campaign, so there’s a public responsibility to deliver the facts. Health Canada won’t put a fact out there that they don’t have research backing,” he adds.

Drummond says experience has taught them that with health-related marketing, folks tend to respond best to fact-based communication, thus eschewed the sensationalization that has been seen in many anti-drug ads.

“There was a strategic mandate and essentially the call was for a hard-hitting spot. They really wanted to shake people up.” Drummond says. “We wanted to keep things factual, even clinical in the demonstration. Using the glass bodies, we could remain straight without trying to lay it on too thick. We could keep it to a factual discussion and have a tangible demonstration of the effects on the body.”

Drummond said that the increasing openness to marijuana makes it something people are less likely to be concerned about, adding that there is also a perception that prescription drugs are less harmful than street drugs. The ads target parents, driving to a website that features advice on how to bring up the issue and talk about it with their children.

“Health Canada has gotten in trouble before for trying to talk to kids before their parents,” Drummond says. “But it just wakes [parents] up to some of the realities. It’s subtle, but it’s ‘talk with your kids, not talk to them.’ Even that can make a big difference.”