Stoner Sloth

A Digital Marketing Catastrophe?

By James Mawson, August 2015

The New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet released their Stoner Sloth viral marketing campaign this week, to merciless ridicule. Opinion pieces across the major daily newspapers and in major websites have faulted it for being too silly or for missing the mark entirely.

Don't just take their word for it though. Watch it yourself.

I reckon if I were New South Welsh, I'd be red in the face with fury at what the Premier is doing during work hours on the public dollar. How can the head bloke in charge piss away his time, thought, attention, and compulsorily acquired tax bucks on such a dubious priority?

Mike Baird, if you're reading this, try doing some actual work. You have one of the most senior positions in Australia. Stop screwing around. Your job's not a holiday.

These ads try to fix what's mostly a non-problem. Most kids who go through a stoner phase grow out of it and become lawyers or soldiers or internet marketers or Presidents of the United States or television repairmen or whatever. The few who don't are mostly having a really good time.

Some might point out that there's special concern about young people smoking weed. Even then, it's really hard to credit a message like this coming from a state government. State governments have done more work than anyone to ensure kids can buy cannabis by keeping it completely in the black market, the only part of the economy where society has absolutely no say in who gets to buy something.

Secondary education in Australia seems mostly a holding pen for a section of the population who need to age a bit before they can be useful in a modern economy. For all the kids who have no motivation to be there but nowhere else they'd be instead, a bit of a soft drugs hobby looks a lot like a completely understable response to their situation.

I'm sure if you dig hard enough you can find the occasional person who has suffered serious harm from cannabis. But are there really that many? In a society where so many stressed and broken adults drink heavily each night just to get through the week, it's an obvious madness to make teenage marijuana use a public health priority.

But is it Good Marketing?

You might agree with these views, or perhaps not. Either way, that's enough about public policy. Let's talk marketing.

Given all that I've said so far, you might expect me to tear this ad to shreds. As it happens, though, I think there are a number of things it's done rather well. As a piece of online communication crafted to meet a specific brief, Stoner Sloth is not too shabby at all.

The sheer silliness of the character - a large reason this campaign has attracted such ridicule - is a big part of why it's great. This is engaging content. Very rarely is an anti-drug message fun to watch. This has rapidly captured people's imaginations.

Joseph Sugarman used to say that the only job of your first sentence is to get the reader to read the second one, and that the only job of your second sentence is to make them read the third. So much in marketing is simply a battle for attention. The amount of media buzz and parody tributes this has inspired in a few short days really speaks to its success.

Every repeat viewing strengthens the association that people already have between being high as hell and not being able to do certain tasks in daily life very well. This is about reinforcing unconscious associations far more than it is about persuasion on a conscious level. This is how just about all marketing works - we all like to tell ourselves we are basing our choices on logic, but most of the time our logic is just there to rationalise the thing we were going to do anyway.

Given that what we have here is a dude in a sloth suit who's always blazed, I don't doubt that a lot of teenagers will see him more as a lovable mascot than a figure of warning. He's perfect to put on for a laugh in between cartoons when you're ripped and red-eyed. This counts against the campaign a lot less than you might think. It's still being watched, and every viewing will still reinforce the connection in people's minds between cannabis use and doing worse in daily life, even as they might giggle themselves silly at how hopelessly overdone it all is.

Remember that the goal of marketing is not to impress anyone with the cleverness of your campaign or the nuanced complexity of your depictions of the world. It's to drive behaviour. Unconscious reinforcements count far more than conscious opinion. Any number of measurably successful ads have made the audience groan and cringe.

Hitting the Target

One thing that Stoner Sloth gets very right is how utterly mundane each situation is. The Collier Principle says to “always enter the conversation already taking place in the prospect's mind.” Things like doing worse in school or looking like a loser in social situations are the real misgivings that teenagers have about cannabis.

Anti-drug propaganda typically relies on heavy handed shock tactics. The viewer is confronted with a stream of horrific situations: violence, family breakdown, prison, homelessness, insanity. You might see visuals of a girl crying in a gutter or paramedics attending to a body bag. This is so far removed from an ordinary kid's daily life as to be completely irrelevant.

With Stoner Sloth we no longer have the image of the demonic drug fiend who has thrown their whole life away for a hit. The sloth is just a kid who happens to be too high for a given situation. That's much more in touch with the audience.

These ads have a lot of scope to drive some behaviour change from stoner kids without completely talking them out of getting high. Instead of a wake&bake before class they might save it for a movie at night. To the extent that the Department of Premier and Cabinet have indicated that the goal of this campaign is to deter cannabis use before it becomes problematic, behaviour change of this type can probably be called a win.

Understand the Brief

In an otherwise excellent piece in the Sydney Morning Herald, Benjamin Veness said:

In comparison, I can only think of one patient I have treated this year for whom marijuana use was a problem. He was in his early 20s and had started suffering from seizures, for which both marijuana and alcohol were postulated as triggers. The main reason he seemed to be smoking five cones a day, however, was as self-medication for his low mood. As often occurs, mental health and substance misuse were interlinked. Rather than the government taunting him like an ignorant schoolyard bully, calling him a stoner sloth, it should be supporting doctors like me to prescribe evidence-based treatments for depression, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Ben, it's a good thing you're a doctor. As a marketer, you'd blow chunks. Ads are written to meet a brief. These ads weren't written around your patient. They're for teenagers. These teenage are a long, long way from seeing a doctor about what they're doing.

To deter anyone from weed, there needs to be a downside. I guess maybe the ads could have shown someone like your patient in the grip of seizures from chronic use. But such old-fashioned scare campaigns completely miss the audience's immediate concerns. No teenager having fun really pictures that that will be them. They can probably see themselves forgetting all the answers to a test though.

Selling the Unsellable

Getting weed smokers to do otherwise is a monumentally difficult sell. Cannabis is inexpensive, widely available, and it can make you feel great. It has no risk of overdose and it makes food, sex, movies, video games and music amazing. If you use it appropriately there's little to no downside. In the face of all of that, it's more or less impossible to tell anyone who sincerely enjoys it that they actually shouldn't.

Professional influencers are hugely aware of the huge role that social proof plays in everyone's decisions. As years have passed, the amount of social proof behind the idea that weed won't ruin your life has grown immensely. The 1960s counterculture had young actors and musicians to look to as visible examples of cannabis users living well. Decades on, there are current and former pot smokers who very visibly lead successful lives everywhere you look. It cuts across all generations and all fields of endeavour. This is true in public life, across media, entertainment, sports, business and political figures. It's also true of people's friends and family.

Persuasion also relies on trust and authority. Here, anti-drug messages suffer immensely from their own history. From Reefer Madness onwards, drugs have been shown to people as a one-way ticket to ruin and madness. These are messages that are very obviously disconnected from the real world. We're now at a point where they have no credibility with their audience at all.

Against these factors, it's extremely difficult to get anyone to pay attention to any anti-marijuana message, far less be convinced by it. This is an unenviably tough sell.

A Pointless Job Well Done

The New South Wales government seems to be copping nothing but criticism for this effort. This is probably for the best. They're championing a cause that's totally out of touch with any priorities that public health experts are urging, and largely out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people as well.

That said, the ad itself is excellent. Most of those who fault it show a total inability to evaluate the quality of the work itself separately from the question of whether we should have an anti-cannabis campaign at all. The creative team at Saatchi & Saatchi have met the brief very ably. Well done guys.

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