In the past two years, fentanyl, the extremely potent synthetic drug, has become a main driver of the U.S.’s ongoing opioid crisis. While the drug’s potent form and cheap production costs make it a staple for drug dealers, its lack of regulations and intensity makes first-time users extremely vulnerable to overdoses. At least 80 percent of the overdoses in 2020 were fentanyl-related, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a number that continues to rise. And recent cases of overdoses in teenagers have sparked a major debate over the best way to prevent fentanyl death. The rise in so-called “rainbow fentanyl” has made the drug a Republican talking point, with both lawmakers and pundits parroting harmful, fear-based myths about fentanyl. But on both sides of the political aisle, leaders are desperate to find an answer to an increasingly important question: How do we save more kids from fatally overdosing on fentanyl?
According to the Ad Council’s new campaign, the Real Deal on Fentanyl, the answer is education — including techniques that have long been used in the harm reduction community. The first of its kind on a national level, the campaign is a series of informational videos that teach teenagers about the opioid crisis, using the best experts of all: former drug dealers. The PSA avoids intimidation tactics and instead uses questions from real kids to answer not just why fentanyl is harmful, but the role the drug is playing in overdoses around the country.
“Everything we do at the Ad council is always really driven deep from data and what’s happening in culture,” says Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer for the nonprofit. “There’s an awareness problem and people don’t understand the dangers of fentanyl and they don’t really see it as a risk. We’ve tapped former drug dealers, and we worked with them to develop classroom style lessons to really dig in and talk to [kids] about the science of fentanyl, the economics, and ultimately how it’s impacting their health and the lives of their friends. We just couldn’t wait another minute.”
Because the public service announcement is aimed at reaching a younger generation, it won’t just appear as a televised advertisement. Recent marketing trends have shown that Generation Z now uses apps like TikTok as search engines, a boon for creators that want to share news but also a pattern that can leave younger users wide open for misinformation. The Ad Council is leaning on a broad network of digital media partners like Snap, Youtube, Twitch, and Google to share verified information from experts that teens and young adults already trust. (Meta is also a partner on the project.)
“Drugs aren’t the same as they were when we were growing up, and there’s such a lack of information out there. We want [kids] understanding that this is a business of economics for drug dealers and that their lives are really just a secondary consequence in this horrible overdose crisis,” Hillman says. “There’s just so much coming at [kids] that we need to reach them as many times as we can, in all of the places and spaces and messengers that really break through and impact them.”
One of the more striking aspects of the national public service announcement is its information and emphasis on the use of Narcan. Also called naloxone, the medicine is an overdose reversal spray and is considered a helpful tool in the fight against fentanyl by harm-reduction experts. Mariah Francis, a Resource Associate with the National Harm Reduction Coalition, previously told Rolling Stone that when trying to educate children, especially those who might have family members impacted by the fentanyl crisis, the focus should be on removing shame and instead giving as much correct information as possible.
“We need to reframe the conversation about drug use and safety,” Francis said. “Instead of placing the blame or simply don’t do drugs, we need to talk about giving your kids the strategies to be safe. That is a life-saving, evidence-based approach.”
According to Hillman, the Ad council and its partners recognize the difficult nature of drug education for teens, especially in a media landscape crowded with content. But the group maintains that education is the best way to prevent more fentanyl-related deaths.
“We know that there’s a lack of awareness on fentanyl and at the Ad Council we want to change that. We know that we need to reach young adults where they are and we know these platforms are where they’re spending so much of their time,” Hillman says. “It’s an urgent crisis. Where the council does its best work is when we can mobilize all of our partners in media and tech and creative, to come together in one big tent and really try to accelerate an important message: What could be more important than saving kids’ lives?”