Every 5 minutes, someone dies of an opioid overdose. To say we have a problem is almost too absurd to point out.
We know it’s a problem. We understand the history (I, too, binged on Dopesick). We sued the manufacturers and we settled. And yet, here we are, in 2023 where opioid overdose is the number 1 killer of Americans under 50. Not car accidents. Not Covid. Opioid addiction.
The opioid epidemic represents a full multisystem failure. At every level, the hole was dug deeper: by greedy pharmaceutical companies, bureaucratic government responses, outdated insurance policies, and aggressive sales people.
It’s impossible to point to a single perpetrator but it is obvious that marketing and sales intensified the problem. In fact, a 2019 study showed that “counties that received more industry marketing saw an increase in opioid prescribing—and experienced higher opioid overdose deaths…For every three additional payments made to physicians per 100,000 people in a county, opioid overdose deaths were 18 percent higher.” (Association of Pharmaceutical Industry Marketing of Opioid Products With Mortality From Opioid-Related Overdoses, JAMA 2019)
As a marketer myself, it's an embarrassment to our industry. We, too, are the villains. Today, as the person who leads marketing for Ophelia, a platform offering virtual treatment for opioid addiction, I have a distinct opportunity to be on the other side of the story. Yes: Marketing (in part) got us into this mess, and now we need marketing to help get us out.
Advertising for addiction treatment is not a daring new idea. Over the last two decades, we’ve seen a herculean attempt to use advertising to make a dent in the opioid crisis. The problem? No one is listening.
Instead of showcasing the tragedy or trying to instill fear, we’ve taken a different approach. Our 2023 advertising campaign is not only asking you to rethink everything you know about treatment for opioid addiction. It’s also challenging you to hold traditional methods of treatment (aka rehab) accountable for killing people.
To put it bluntly, we are saying F*ck rehab.
I use the word “rehab” to describe all types of addiction programs, whether it’s a 6-week residential program or an outpatient program where you visit multiple times a week often with in-person therapy and abstinence requirements. If that sounds vague, it’s because it is — and that’s the problem.
Despite often promoting themselves as evidence-based medical clinics, rehabs are an unregulated “wild wild west.” The facts are that rehab fails 90% of the time when not paired with medication and 2 out of 3 aren’t prescribing medication. And we know that after a detox, you are more likely to overdose due to a decrease in tolerance.
The F*ck Rehab campaign isn’t a showy spectacle in the metaverse or a salacious stunt. The campaign takes inspiration from protest speech and the aesthetic, from punk, street design. But we are using media pretty plainly - wild postings, digital ads, blog content. There is nothing particularly unique about the buy as we are expecting the message to do the heavy lifting. There is no smoke and mirrors here. And that strategy is deliberate. I love the idea of using advertising as it's meant to be - to get you questioning, to get you googling and to springboard a conversation.
It's going to get people mad. We are prepared to ruffle some feathers, to anger some people in the process. We know that there is a small percentage for whom rehab was the answer. But when people are dying without access to medication in rehab, we can’t pretend that these success stories are the norm.
Would you gamble your life, your son's life, your best friend’s life, on 1 out of 10 odds?
I don’t think so.