You Need to Speak Emoji to Understand This Anti-Drug Campaign

Partnership talks to high schoolers in their language By Katie Richards

If you can’t figure what these billboards mean, you’re probably terrible at decoding emoji, and you’re probably not a teenager. But that’s OK, because the new campaign from the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids was designed to communicate with high schoolers, not adults.

Known for its iconic «Your Brain on Drugs» campaign, the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, this week released its #WeGotYou campaign. It’s the Partnership’s first campaign for Above the Influence since it inherited the initiative from the Office of National Drug Control Policy in March 2014.

Boston-based agency Hill Holliday created the campaign—which includes outdoor, print, cinema and mobile—pro-bono, while Horizon Media secured roughly $8 million worth of outdoor space, including prime real estate in Times Square.

Hill Holliday’s mission was to not only bring some new life to the Above the Influence brand but to connect with teenagers and spark conversations about tricky topics like bullying and drinking without seeming too preachy.

«It’s not about saying drugs are bad. It’s about saying drugs are not for me,» Kristi Rowe, CMO at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, told Adweek. Rowe said the Partnership didn’t want to take a harsh tone with teens, but rather support them no matter what they’ve done in the past. «If you slip up, it’s OK,» she said. «Try again tomorrow. We got you.»

The best way to do that, in Hill Holliday’s opinion, was through emojis.

«We knew we wanted to be on a peer-to-peer level, so let’s do something in their language,» said Amanda Roberts, copywriter on the campaign.

The campaign includes bright yellow billboards filled with strings of emojis. To an untrained, older eye they probably look like nonsense. But to a teenager who speaks fluent emoji, it translates into an important message about dealing with the pressures of being a teen today. The messages aren’t just about smoking or drinking, but also cover topics like body image, bullying and sex.

One billboard, for example, features two Italian flags, a gas pump, some hand signals and letters. Decoded, the message reads, «It feels like everyone’s doing it.»

«For teens that are having trouble putting into words the issues they are going through, emojis are what they naturally tend to gravitate towards,» said Alyssa Fishman, junior art director at Hill Holliday. «It’s without a doubt the best way to talk about these difficult situations.»

Through another extension of the campaign, the mobile site, teens can create and share their own decoded emoji sentences.

«We want kids to go to the mobile site and interact with the codes and share them with their friends, but also take that next step to change behavior and strike up conversations that they didn’t feel comfortable having in the past,» said Jeff Nowak, svp and account director at Hill Holliday.