If a PSA drops in cyberspace, does anyone hear it?
As various interests have increasingly converged on YouTube in hopes of some free, viral marketing, it came as little surprise when the White House announced earlier this week that it, too, wanted a piece of lonelygirl's spotlight.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy posted a dozen videos at www.YouTube.com/ONDCP, mostly of public-service commercials on the dangers of drug use from the "above the influence" campaign, as seen on TV.
As of Wednesday, the ONDCP channel had received a scant 53 subscribers and a total of 14,463 views, a relatively low total. How the youthful, rebellious Web is responding to the ONDCP's efforts is perhaps hinted at by the mirror site, www.ondcp.com, which recasts the acronym as "oppressive network drug content propaganda."
It's true, though, that any YouTube viewings are basically gravy to the ONDCP; it costs nothing to post the clips. Still, the campaign's numbers pale in comparison to, for example, the hundreds of thousands that have watched various videos on how to grow marijuana.
A spokesman for YouTube, which generally doesn't regulate its user-posted videos, declined on Wednesday to discuss the site's policy regarding videos that show illegal activity, such as drug use or drug production.
YouTube and the Web clearly present a problem for public service announcements. On TV and on radio, PSAs typically rely on federally required play or corporations looking to bolster their image. They are inserted between entertainment — they aren't the entertainment, itself.
On YouTube, there are no regulations and videos make a dent with the public only if they create their own audience, thus making their way up the "most viewed" list. To help grab viewers, the government links its videos with the terms "war on drugs," "peer-pressure," "marijuana," "weed," "ONDCP" and "420" (a reference to marijuana), so anyone searching for those words on YouTube can find them.
The Ad Council, a leading producer of PSAs since 1942, has seen its methods change over the years and has worked to adapt to the Internet — like asking for donated ad time to play before videos.
"I don't think YouTube has changed the way we approach PSAs, but I think it's just added another dimension and another media niche for a no-cost solution," says Barbara Shimaitis, the senior vice president of interactive services at the Ad Council.
Shimaitis thinks YouTube and other video-sharing sites could propel PSAs to become still more entertaining, and points to the popularity of a dramatic global warming ad of theirs featuring a train (a metaphor for global warming) bearing down on a young girl (a stand-in for future generations).
Some of the most viewed drug-related videos on YouTube are far more persuasively anti-drug than anything produced by the government or the Ad Council. In one video, you can see a real heroin user discuss his fight with addiction.
Over 183,000 people have watched a sadly hysterical 1980 interview with Richard Pryor in which he brags about cocaine he recently purchased. It would be hard to watch the clip of Pryor, who died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in 2005, and not contemplate whether drugs shortened his life.
Still, people generally don't watch YouTube hoping to change their lives. After all, one of the most watched PSAs on YouTube is a clip from the `80s about the dangers of crack cocaine. It's not watched for its message, but for its star: Pee Wee Herman.
By Jake Coyle
© 2006 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.