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Man, it's hard to be a teenager. Once the sunny domain of the Beach Boys, riding around aimlessly in cars and hanging at the mall, teenager-land is fraught with the scourges of meth addiction, raging hormones, STDs, unwanted pregnancy, drinking, smoking pot, poor body image, eating disorders, cutting, tobacco... Survive all that and you've still got to write your college essay. And did I mention acne?

Seriously, it's grim out there. To help teens (and their parents) handle adolescence, public service Web sites are offering hope, coping techniques, forums and a message that says you can survive without drugs. In the process these sites provide savvy marketers powerful case studies about how to reach—and engage—an audience using a complete arsenal of interactive techniques.

Social networking sites are nothing if not pervasive among teens. With 75 percent of all teenagers in America on one social networking site or another, the medium has become the <i>de facto</i> mode of communication for marketers who want to reach teens. As John Kearse, creative director on Arnold's Sunny Side of Truth campaign, explains, "It's a natural place to be if you want to be part of the conversation. You want to fish where the fish are."

Girls' self-esteem is in trouble. By relentlessly promulgating unattainable, and—thanks to digital retouching—impossible standards of beauty, the industry has created a generation of teens who hate their bodies. According to the Girl Scouts Research Institute, the result is low self-esteem that manifests itself as "eating disorders, depression, risky sexual behaviors and substance abuse."

In 2004, a study sponsored by Dove and conducted by Harvard University and the London School of Economics discovered that while only 2 percent of 3,200 women worldwide defined themselves as beautiful, more than 30 percent called themselves "natural." On the strength of data like that, one of the most effective, provocative and intriguing advertising campaigns of all time was born.

The Campaign For Real Beauty wasn't created to sell more beauty products; it's selling self-esteem for girls and their moms. According to Mike Hemingway, Ogilvy & Mather worldwide managing director/Dove, "There's dictatorial beauty and there's democratic beauty. Our mission is to broaden the notion of beauty."

Instead of the skinny models that shill beauty products, the campaign celebrates gorgeous healthy women having fun with friends in their underwear. Their presence in ads provoked a firestorm in media circles, TV talk shows and the blogosphere.

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"We designed this work to be debated in public," Hemingway says. On the Web site, there's barely a bar of soap in sight. "It's possible to touch the brand without touching the product. We wanted to create an oasis where we could engage in a conversation with our customers. No other medium is as effective as the Web."

Visitors encounter interactive tools, downloadable research reports, training courses, real beauty workshops, a gallery of self-esteem films, ecards and opportunities to become real beauty mentors. Clearly the campaign has touched a nerve. The discussion forums boast more than 10,000 responses on self-esteem, body image and older women.

And then there are the films: Created by Reginald Pike, a Canadian production company, these short films have captured the attention of the world. Evolution, directed by Tim Piper, depicts an average-looking young woman morphing into a glamazon-thanks to a legion of hair stylists, makeup artists and Photoshop jocks. Evolution has been seen on YouTube more than ten million times.

In Hemingway's words, these spots go from heart to head in 60 seconds. They flatter the sender and the receiver. That's what makes them so effective as viral communications. "We didn't start anything," Hemingway says. "We released it. And it ripped around the world." And sales went through the roof.

The Montana Meth Project was never meant to be a consumer site. The site—designed by SafarikMedia—and the cause, took shape after Silicon Valley software entrepreneur Tom Siebel retired to Montana and discovered a generation of kids lost to meth, according to Paul Venables, co-founder of Venables Bell & Partners, the agency that created the PSAs hosted on the site.

Funded by the Siebel Foundation, The Montana Meth Project conducts clinical research, public service messaging, community outreach, a public art campaign and ties it all together on its site. The Meth Project isn't just an ad campaign; it's a full-scale public health project, directed to legislators, public health officials, schools, concerned parents and teens.

Before they shot a single frame, Venables Bell sent teams of researchers to Montana. "We had planners interviewing teenagers," Venables says. "We discovered a target market. We understood what their perceptions were, and we learned how to talk to them." They learned that meth was so addictive that the campaign needed to have a strategy to reach kids as young as eleven, kids that had never before tried it.

To tell the story of meth addiction, Venables Bell hired top flight directors Tony Kaye, Darren Aronofsky and Alejandro González Iñárritu. Their 30-second, slice-of-death narratives plunge viewers straight into meth culture. The spots are so dark and scary that after seeing "Bathtub" not only will you never take meth, you'll think twice before stepping into the shower.

Ads are in heavy rotation and expected to reach 80 percent of Montana teens 3 times each week. The project is working. In just 2 years Montana went from the 5th heaviest meth use in the U.S. to 39th.

We have to keep the message fresh. The Sunny Side talks to kids the way kids talk to each other." —John Kearse

Launched in 2000, Truth is all about providing information about tobacco and its industry so that if kids decide to start smoking—and research indicates that 80 percent of all smokers pick up the habit as teenagers—they have the information they need to make an informed choice.

Snarky, sarcastic and media savvy, The Sunny Side of Truth attempts to look on the bright side of the tobacco industry. As in: "If tobacco eventually kills one out of three teens who smoke, the sunny side is that two live." The campaign, created by Arnold, is driven by faux Broadway songs, candy-colored cartoons and populated by leprechauns, unicorns and fairies. One of their most popular video spots, "The Magical Amount," features teen actors hectoring a crowd in New York's Washington Square about nicotine levels in cigarettes. Suddenly, a cartoon unicorn wanders on screen, and the teens burst into a 1950s-style saccharine-sweet jingle.

Creative directors Meg Siegal and John Kearse believe presenting facts drenched in the heavy syrup of craven marketese is just one way to reach teens without them tuning out. Kearse explains, "We have to keep the message fresh. The Sunny Side talks to kids the way kids talk to each other."

To make sure that message gets out, Arnold has launched a full-fledged integrated media campaign that could serve as a template for consumer marketing circa 2009. Three years ago, messaging drove the audience to the flagship Web site at www.thetruth.com. Today, The Sunny Side campaign is using the Web, social networking sites, iTunes and mobile media to communicate its message. Instead of trying to tear teens away from their MySpace pages, The Sunny Side features pages on MySpace, Bebo and Hi5.

According to Siegal, "Reaching teens entails conveying a message in a creative wrapper that has high pass-along value. Our Keytar Slayer game invites kids to play along with the Sunny Side songs. We made sure to include elements that let kids challenge their friends, show off high scores on a leader board and e-mail links to the game to their friends. It's important that these messages come from friends, not just from The Truth."

Kearse adds, "When a friend thinks something is cool, and tells you about it, that's the best advertising there is." To see how effective this can be, check out the fan videos. Shot in the street, in kids' bedrooms, behind the bleachers on football fields, these videos feature kids singing and dancing to their own versions of "The Magical Amount." The teens are passionate advocates of the brand. And they are spreading the message.

The U.S. Department of Defense wants its soldiers sober. They reached out to Fleishman-Hillard for a site designed to combat binge drinking by its youngest recruits.

Creative director Marc Dionne explains, "Research was crucial. We discovered this age group doesn't care about long-term consequences. They do care about social consequences: not getting a date because people think you are a loser. Social disapproval is a huge motivator."

Fleishman-Hillard went to military bases across the country and showed the initial work, which received a pretty tepid response. Dionne remembers, "The only thing we showed that enlisted men responded to was an image of a guy bending over a toilet. It depicted something real with humor. Humor takes the edge off; it disarms the audience."

There's dictatorial beauty and there's democratic beauty. Our mission is to broaden the notion of beauty." —Mike Hemingway

Online, That Guy is designed as a diorama, theme park and fun ride, meant to get viewers to stop and think about whether they will be a binge drinker. Enter a nightclub and a drag-and-drop microphone leads to jokes like: "You might be that guy if somebody's front lawn looks more comfortable than your bed." A blog called That Guy Busted pulls content from around the Web to showcase scenes of public drunkenness, and share personal tales that generally result in unexpected trips to the emergency room or to the county lockup.

There's something for everyone at Above the Influence, a site designed to combat risky behaviors and drug use for kids aged nine through eighteen. For the team at Fleishman-Hillard, that begins with research that drives the online experience, engagement and ultimately education.

According to Marc Dionne, creative director for Above the Influence, one of the surprises revealed by research is that kids "just want the facts. They want to get in and get out." To present those facts in a cool, engaging way, Dionne designed a site that is an example of barely controlled chaos, with every element of the site differing in form, style, content and function. "We did that on purpose," Dionne says, "so our visitors would never know what's around the corner. As trends evolve, we can evolve with them. We're not locked into a specific design style."

Click on Myth Busters, and suddenly you're engaged in a point-and-click shooting gallery, blasting away myths to get the facts. Stoners in the Mist is a tongue-in-cheek series of nature-show videos that reveal potheads in their natural element. Professional ads on Above the Influence combine poetry slam, wry humor and surreal situations to tell cautionary tales in 30 seconds. In a section called Speak, teens are invited to submit their own contributions.

"We found ways to make participation active and immediate," Dionne says. "We invite people to upload content, and it turns out the submission area is the most active area of the site. Teens are responding with photographs, poems, even their own videos in the form of public service announcements. The good thing about teenagers is that they have a lot of time on their hands."

There's an old saw about adolescence being a disease only time can cure. Meanwhile, the Web is ready with a healthy dose of humor, fear, big emotional moments and downloadable games, ring tones and viral videos. The messages run the gamut from the surreal—a girl is told by her dog that she was more fun before she started smoking pot—to the scary. And the sites are garnering tons of awards for their creators. Most importantly, no matter how these messages are being delivered, government statistics show that alcohol, drug and tobacco use are declining among teenagers.

As more and more teens are listening, interacting, passing along viral videos and posting their own content, they just might be too busy and too engaged to be tuning out, turning on and getting loaded. ca

Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at sam@wordstrong.com.

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