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'What a Dope: Daft do-gooder tells kids it's OK to use killer drug'

That was the sensationalist headline, in a January 1992 edition of the Daily Star, used to a condemn a drug information leaflet, called 'Chill Out - a Ravers Guide' - a guide written by Alan Matthews and Peter McDermott from the Mersey Regional Drug Training & Information Centre (MRDTIC), a pioneering drug information unit based in Liverpool.

It was only a few weeks earlier we had been commisioned by MRDTIC to work with them on the design and format of Chill Out, and only a few days earlier had dropped off a few thousand shiny new Chill Out leaflets - before the fan started to smell a bit!

..."Just wanted to let you know how pleased we are with the final images/materials for our social marketing campaign. We have had some really positive feedback locally from partners... All have been well received but the family image seems to be a definite favourite".
Community Partnership Manager, Yorkshire

The leaflet contained information about the three main drugs used on the club scene at the time: Ecstasy, LSD and amphetamine. It considered the risks involved in using those drugs, methods to try to minimise the risks, and how to deal with an overdose. The kind of information considered essential by today's standards. The moral majority were not happy!

We had worked previously on information resources for the first Syringe Exchange Scheme in the UK - also on behalf of MRDTIC, so we were used to controversial health initiatives, but this was our first real experience of how misleading media headlines and attention-seeking indignation could be used to misrepresent a message and try to suppress an important piece of health information.

..."Its a really good informative binge drinking publication, without 'preaching' "...
Alcohol Project manager, Merseyside

The attention-seeking indignation was ramped up by various public figures, one of them Ken Hind MP, who at the time was the Conservative Member of Parliament for West Lancashire. In an outburst of moral outrage, he said: "This is a disgraceful waste of public funds. I shall today send a letter to the Chairman of Mersey Regional Health Authority demanding such funding is immediately withdrawn."

So how did 2 sides of A4 cause the great and good to choke on their moral outrage?

Looking back on it today, we think the outrage was probably as much about its lack of condemnation and stigmatisation of people who used drugs, as it was about the pragmatic information it contained.

Flicking through the Frank website recently - the Government's website for young people and drugs - it's uncanny how closely some of the information it contains reflects the pioneering advice given out in the early '90s.

We have come a long way since the ground-breaking harm reduction campaigns of the early 90s. We now work with organisations across the UK on a range of social marketing campaigns, health-related resources, websites, SEO and digital marketing campaigns.

Our team of writers and designers create a growing range of credible and unique substance use resources which we supply to drug and alcohol services, schools, hospitals, CCGs, voluntary and third sector organisations throughout the UK. You can order these from the Substance shop.

We still knock out the occasional double-sided A4, and the principles of good communication and design remain the same: Don't sensationalise and don't stigmatise. Provide your intended audience with credible, evidence-based information, well designed, in a tone that they can engage with and understand, and you're message will have a positive impact on their behaviour - and history will always be on your side.


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