South Dakota’s Smarter than You

The endlessly condescending sharing of their recent campaign against meth abuse is exactly the point.

Yesterday, South Dakota released an ad to raise awareness about the amphetamine epidemic ravaging the state. Its tagline? “Meth. We’re On It.”

The tagline went viral as the internet collectively raced to demonstrate its recognition of the double entendre. I, admittedly, was part of the group. How the hell could South Dakota have missed that? I thought to myself. They clearly had no idea what they were doing.

After thinking about it a bit more, though, I not only think South Dakota knew exactly what they were doing, I also think they may also have just executed the best marketing campaign of the year.

Let me explain.

In his book Alchemy: The Dark Art and Curious Science of Creating Magic in Brands, Business, and Life, Rory Sutherland — Vice Chairman of London-based advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather — asks a simple question: Why doesn’t water taste like anything?

According to psychophysicist Mark Changizi, Sutherland writes, water tastes like nothing because evolutionarily, its lack of taste made it easier for us to taste anything that might be tainting it. Bacteria from a rotting carcass upstream could spell death for a human that ingested it, and flavorless water would make it easier for us to taste it.

The metaphor here should be obvious. To us, most of life is tasteless. We aren’t consciously aware of what happens around us because most of it isn’t a threat. Day after day, I get on the same bus at the same stop with little to no mind for anything other than how quickly I can get my phone back out of my pocket. But you can be sure that if someone disruptive or otherwise unpredictable steps onto the bus, I’m paying attention. Something’s tainted the water. And if things go bad, I’m evolutionarily programmed to pay attention so I’ll remember what happened, should it happen again.

For better or worse, this understanding of human nature has driven the strategy behind many of the best (read: most effective) marketing campaigns of the last century (see: Old Spice, Wonderful Pistachios). The goal of marketing, then — especially as it pertains to things people would rather not pay attention to — is in making sure that the message taints the tastelessness of existence, and forces us to pay attention.

South Dakota’s campaign does exactly this.

The barely disguised double entendre within “Meth. We’re On It.” makes you think you’re smarter than the people that came up with it, virtually forcing you to share it. From there, conversation—even if its mocking—is inevitable.

In our endless race to be the first to share anything, the campaign tosses us a softball and hands us a tennis racket. It’s only after we’ve watched the ball sail into the boundless depths of cyberspace that we realize it was signed by Babe Ruth, and that the joke is on us. 

For now, we can expect mixed reactions to the campaign. Marketers, however, should know better. South Dakota certainly did, and this campaign might just represent the best effort yet to bring attention to an issue that no one wants to pay attention to, let alone discuss.

The kicker is that now, everyone’s doing both.

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