Ten years ago, Talk to Frank changed the world of anti-drugs campaigning from one that viewed drugs as the devil which we should all ‘Just Say No’ to, to one that encouraged drugs to be spoken about openly and light-heartedly.
Talk to Frank is the longest running anti-drugs campaign the UK has ever had. It took the country by storm with its first, controversial campaign, which featured a teenage boy calling in a police squad to arrest his mother for asking him if they could have a quiet chat about drugs.
This was the beginning of a new attitude that saw a gradual decline in the idea that drugs were simply something that ruined lives and turned people into ‘no-hopers’. The message was new too: “Drugs are illegal. Talking about them isn’t. So Talk to Frank.”
Frank became the trusted ‘older brother’ figure that young people could turn to for advice about illegal substances. Furthermore, Frank was never constrained to a physical identity. He was an idea, not a face, and so avoided sporting an image that was either not cool, too cool, or a face associated with a government-funded campaign.
Frank offered a fresh perspective: Drugs may offer highs as well as lows – which was a far cry from Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ to drugs campaign (now viewed by experts to have been counterproductive).
As we see the repeat of the first Talk to Frank advert to mark the 10th anniversary of the campaign, one may ask: Has Talk to Frank actually stopped anyone from taking drugs?
According to the Home Office, 67% of young people said they would turn to Frank if they needed drugs advice. 225,892 calls were made to the Frank helpline and 3,341,777 visits to the website in 2011/12.
Since the campaign was launched a decade ago, drug use in the UK has gone down by 9%, but experts say much of this is down to a decline in cannabis use, possibly linked to changing attitudes towards smoking tobacco among young people.
There is actually no evidence that Talk to Frank, or any other media driven anti-drugs campaigns around the world, have stopped people from taking drugs.
“All the research suggests (anti-drugs campaigns) don’t work. They are not cost-effective,” says drug prevention expert Prof Harry Sumnall, of Liverpool John Moores University’s Centre for Public Health.
Like the majority of drugs prevention workers in the UK he is reluctant to criticise Frank, agreeing the campaign is a big improvement on what came before. However, he hastens to add: “My personal view is that we have tended to rely on Frank as a replacement for a comprehensive drug education strategy.”
Mike Linnell of Manchester-based harm reduction charity Lifeline, supports this. He, too, believes the money spent on campaigns could be put to better use through drugs education courses within local communities.
However, the Home Office continues to argue that advertising is the most cost efficient method of raising awareness among “a large audience of four million 13-18 year-olds”.
Frank has survived a major cutback in government-funded advertising. However, as long as illegal drug use numbers continue to fall, the organisation plan to continue their hard work, whether they are directly responsible for that decline or not.