An unexpectedly creative approach to opioid addiction

Who: Interior Health (B.C.) and Crew.

What: “Dr. OATley,” a new campaign promoting OAT (opioid agonist therapy) for the treatment of opioid addiction. Introduced in Canada in 1959, OAT treats addiction to opioids such as oxycodone, fentanyl and Percocet through the use of medications such as Methadone. It is Crew’s first work for the organization.

When & Where: It’s a highly targeted social campaign designed to reach men between the ages of 25-45, particularly those who work in industries such as trades and trucking. Crew’s chief creative officer Gerald Schoenhoff said that the nature of their work tends to lead to injuries and prescriptions for painkillers, which can spiral into addiction and even death.

Why: Opioids have become a major crisis in B.C. in recent years, with government data showing 398 deaths from “illicit drug toxicity” in the first three months of the year, compared with 268 in the same time period last year. The data shows that fentanyl was detected in 84% of those deaths, up from 5% in 2012, while other opioids were detected in 30.9% of all illicit drug toxicity deaths between 2018 and 2020.

“We hope the messages will encourage people to get support in a positive, friendly manner and without judgement,” said Aisha Sinclair, director, brand and marketing for Interior Health. “Ultimately, our hope is that this message saves lives.”

How: Previous messaging had focused on harm reduction through general awareness about the dangers of overdose and advice about how to use drugs safely, said Sinclair. The goal with this campaign was to focus on connecting people to treatment, specifically medications.

Rather than taking what Schoenhoff described as a “this is you on drugs” approach focusing on the negative aspects of addiction, the ads take a lighthearted approach, showing a former addict enjoying a life free of drugs—exercising, working and being romantic with his partner.

“There’s a lot to talk about in a 15-second spot, so the creative challenge was how do we communicate all of these complex parts of the program, plus the benefits and the outcome,” said Schoenhoff. “We really approached it like traditional pharma advertising, where we just jumped to the benefit with a strong call to action of ‘Ask your doctor.'”

In each ad, a doctor character commends the man and cheers on his recovery, while the final shot features him presenting OAT as a box of over-the-counter medicine, urging viewers to speak to doctors to see if the treatment is right for them. “We wanted to create a character that would come across as being trustworthy, approachable, authoritative and empathetic,” said Schoenhoff of the doctor character.

There are no overt references to opioids or addiction in any of the three spots, but Schoenhoff said the goal is to “open up the conversation” to everyone in the target age group because the problem is so pervasive in B.C. “Either you are suffering from it, or you know somebody who is, so we wanted everyone to talk about this,” he said. “It might be a guy who’s 25 years old who wonders what it’s about and asks his doctor.”

And we quote: “We felt it was pushing the boundaries, but [Interior Health] liked the idea of it being untraditional for this type of idea. They immediately jumped on it and said ‘Let’s see where we can take it.’ The client was quite decisive but was also careful to validate [the approach] through research. The really liked the idea of a bit of humour, which to them felt different and breakthrough.” — Gerald Schoenhoff, chief creative officer, Crew

“We wanted to create something that was real, approachable and met people where they are at. This campaign and the messages resonated with people who had lived experience with substance use. We hope the messages will encourage people to get support in a positive, friendly manner and without judgement. Ultimately, our hope is that this message saves lives.” — Aisha Sinclair, director, brand and marketing, Interior Health

Chris Powell