To #ChooseEmpathy, a Copywriter is subjected to the pain of drug withdrawal

David Gianatasio at Muse by Clio, sent me this PSA for comment. It’s not your average ad about drug addiction.

Jake Reilly, a Senior Copywriter at Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco, California, does not suffer from debilitating drug addiction. But he says he has friends who do, and he wanted to understand why they are in this situation.

“I think I had always, sort of, just blamed what was happening to you, on you,” Jake admits, in a brave display of self-awareness.

The other man, an actor playing the addicted friend, reframes the conversation. He explains that it’s no longer about seeking pleasure, but rather the constant fear of withdrawal that motivates him to keep using. And then Jake learns why withdrawal is hell.

This is where it gets experiential, with Jake’s friend subjecting the Copywriter to increasingly severe physical symptoms of opioid withdrawal, basically beating the crap out of him.

We’ve seen drug addiction dramatized before, with this kind of violence, in campaigns like Meth: Not Even Once. But those were scare tactics in the service of prevention. The message here is entirely different.

Jake told Muse that his intention was to “raise the collective consciousness and remove the stigma around addiction so that people like my friends will be comfortable enough to come forward and get the help that they need.” It was supported by VB&P’s annual Fearless Project, which encourages staffers to pitch “passion projects.” (Jake’s, obviously, had the winning idea.)

Personally, I was shaken by the call-to-action — after all that suffering — being simply to understand that addiction is not a choice, and to choose to be empathetic and supportive of people with a life-changing illness.

This sets the campaign apart from fear-based drug prevention campaigns, which work on the assumption that people’s lives are always guided by rational choices and the instinctive pursuit of pleasure/avoidance of pain. In this worldview, it’s easy to blame the victims of addiction as people who make bad choices, or are weak-willed. (As Jake seems to admit.) But the brain and social science behind addiction shows that it’s far more complicated than that.

By focussing on the user’s experience, and immersing the bystander in it, this #ChooseEmpathy video is more akin to sensitivity-building experiences, like Jane Elliott’s seminars about racism. This is very different than trying to scare people “straight.” And hopefully, it will be more effective in helping all of us learn how to help each other.

Read the Muse piece for more background and full credits.

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