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The Challenge

 Fentanyl use has been increasing at an alarming rate in communities across the country. It’s now the leading cause of overdose in Washington state. And with a potency that makes it 100 times more powerful than other opioids, it’s a real danger that’s dominating the illicit drug market in unparalleled ways.

 Fentanyl is a scary substance. Parents and caregivers are worried their kids may take it unknowingly. Families and friends are devastated by losing loved ones to overdose. Communities are wrestling with their response to escalating use.

 It’s easy to be overwhelmed by issues of this scale. And it’s tempting to fall back on stereotypes about drug use or outdated, disproven drug prevention methods that lean heavily on facts, figures and scare tactics.

 The challenge the Washington Health Care Authority and DH took on, though, was to lead with hope and empathy, and to let them drive Washington state’s first-ever proactive public education campaign about fentanyl.

 Our research showed that despite growing media coverage of fentanyl overdose, many people in Washington state, especially young adults, lacked information about this critical topic. We also found that young adults more so than any other age demographic had a lack of accessible knowledge about fentanyl and naloxone, yet were more at risk of illicit fentanyl.

The Strategy

We wanted to create a campaign that offered hopeful, helpful actions that everyone could take. And we knew we needed to create something that would avoid stigmatizing drug use and could speak to Washingtonians across the spectrum of familiarity and experiences of drug use. So, we designed a campaign theme that would be flexible enough to provide both lifesaving information for people who use drugs as well as empowering messages of prevention for young people and their parents.

By implementing the campaign in two phases, we are able to reach different audiences with information most relevant to their experience. The first phase is focused on harm reduction, which respects the reality and agency of those who use drugs. The second phase is focused on prevention and empowering young people and trusted adults with upstream tools.

We began by conducting an extensive landscape review of existing substance use prevention campaigns, as well as best practices in substance use education and current data about fentanyl and naloxone use. The insights we gleaned – like the finding that empathy is a more effective and more motivating emotion to evoke than fear – informed the development of our messaging and creative approach.

We tested several campaign concepts with focus groups, which included participants with varying levels of familiarity and experience with substance use. The Friends for Life campaign concept was chosen because of its community-oriented and empathetic nature. Focus group participants particularly appreciated the way this concept utilized humanizing and destigmatizing rhetoric.

The Friends for Life theme was inspired by the care-centric attitude young people have for their friends and their instinct to keep each other safe. Scare tactic-informed campaigns have proven to be ineffective as a behavior change technique, which also contributes to the stigmatization and shame around people who use drugs. This campaign intentionally relies on empowering individuals to take simple steps that can save a life: carrying naloxone and knowing how and when to use it is a way to show your friends you care about them.

What We Did

Once our campaign was ready to be put out into the world, we employed a three-prong strategy of distribution, including paid media, earned media and a toolkit designed for community partners.

Paid media

We developed testimonial-style video PSAs in collaboration with people in recovery who spoke to the impact fentanyl can have on a life, how fentanyl is changing the drug supply chain and how to keep each other safe. Through our research, we found that sharing stories of real people who have lived experience with opioid use disorder (OUD) reduced the stigmatization of drug use and resonated with our primary audience.

Partner toolkit

Our toolkit included a variety of print, digital and promotional materials that community partners could access for free on our website. We offered design support to customize pieces with any unique logos or contact information that would make them most applicable for organizations. Our website also includes step-by-step informational guides on how to identify and respond to an overdose as well as where to access naloxone.

By making these resources available to a wide variety of organizations who work directly with young adults, we expanded the reach of our campaign’s messages through trusted message carriers.

Community-Based Partnerships

Part of our campaign included prioritizing outreach to communities that are disproportionately affected by fentanyl due to systemic barriers, including racism, and other compounding factors. This took the form of partnering with a few select BIPOC and LGBTQ+ focused community-based organizations to tailor and distribute messaging to their priority audiences.

We also partnered with syringe services programs – organizations that provide access to clean needles, testing and other services for people who use drugs – across the state. Program coordinators and clients of their programs gave feedback on the campaign concepts and messages, and program coordinators distributed campaign materials to their clients with lived experience with substance use.

The Results

This campaign is the first step in the journey to addressing the rise of fentanyl.

One month into the ongoing paid media flight, there were 63,000 site visitors to WAFriendsforLife.com, 62,000 of which came directly from ad tracking links. So far, our social media ads have reached over 2.4 million users statewide across Snapchat, Instagram, TikTok and Spotify.

As the campaign progresses, we are continuing to promote the use of campaign materials to expand the reach of our message with community partners and organizations. We are now moving into the second phase of the campaign, which focuses on youth under the age of 18 and trusted adults as message carriers.

For more about the campaign, go to WAFriendsForLife.com.

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