Docu kicks off public service campaign

On the evening of Sept. 8, after many kids will have endured their first day back to school, they’re likely to run into an unmistakable message on TV from the likes of LeBron James, Kelly Clarkson and President Obama: Stay in class.

The effort, called Get Schooled, is the start of a five-year public service campaign from Viacom and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with the kickoff featuring a half-hour documentary that will be “roadblocked” across all of Viacom’s cable networks, including MTV, Nickelodeon and Comedy Central.

The scope of the endeavor is a message that in the ever-more cluttered media environment, the traditional 30-second PSA just isn’t cutting it like it used to.

That’s particularly true for one of the generations the partners hope to reach: kids and teens who have never had more competition for their attention spans.

The Get Schooled effort also features an array of viral public service announcements, from DMC to Asher Roth to Cyndi Lauper, as well as a Facebook page and Twitter feeds, and a website that will offer, in simple language, information on scholarships and careers, among other things.

The 30-minute doc, titled “Get Schooled: You Have the Right,” profiles White House speechwriter Sarah Hurwitz, Clarkson’s music director Jason Halbert and James’ marketing exec Latesha Williams, each explaining how they overcame educational hurdles to get where they are today. (The project is not part of Obama’s planned address to school students earlier in the day, a speech that has drawn some protest from conservatives.)

Philippe Dauman, president and CEO of Viacom, says the campaign has been in the planning stages for more than a year. He met with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and other officials. Citing education quality and dropout rates, Dauman says education “is one area where, if you can make progress, you can solve a lot of other social problems.”

The campaign is also directed beyond those still in school. It aims to put education at the top of the cultural agenda and to mobilize politicos, corporate leaders and local communities, or, in Viacom’s case, raising the awareness of the need for better scholastic performance.

Dauman says the initiative is nonpartisan but notes that Obama and his administration “have made a strong commitment” to educating and preparing youth for “the new jobs of the 21st century.”

“Some of the information from the Gates Foundation is astounding to me,” Dauman says. “I don’t think people are aware of the low rates of graduation and the lack of preparedness of people who graduate from high school. We are going to get people to understand that, and get outraged” about the current state.

On the afternoon of Sept. 8, in fact, Viacom, the Gates Foundation and other corporations are hosting a conference on the Paramount lot featuring Dauman, Gates, Davis Guggenheim, U.S. deputy secretary of education Tony Miller and Arianna Huffington, with Stephen Colbert hosting.

But can a campaign like this be concretely effective?

Without a doubt, the media environment has gotten ever more complicated.

“When you are talking about adolescents and young adults, you are not talking about a monolithic audience anymore,” says Amy Jordan, director of the media and the developing child sector of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the U. of Pennsylvania. “The notion that they would launch across all platforms is a good idea, but it still means that you will not reach a good portion of the audience. Hopefully they can reach them through a multimedia effort.”

While the concept may conjure images of afterschool TV specials and the “very special” sitcom eps once in vogue, Viacom is encouraging its creative execs to feature education storylines in programming “to the extent it fits,” Dauman says.

And there’s some evidence that such an approach actually may resonate.

A Rand Corp. study published in 2003 on the exposure of teens to sexual content examined an episode of “Friends” with a plot in which Rachel reveals she’s pregnant even though she and her boyfriend used a condom during intercourse. The study showed that most viewers remembered that the episode was about “the effectiveness of condoms.” Teens were twice as likely to remember the message of risk when they watched the episode with a parent or discussed it with them.

Not a week goes by without a nonprofit, government agency or other entity launching some kind of effort, all with the goal of having some influence on behavior or the public consciousness, but they’ve found varying degrees of success. Hampering efforts, Jordan and other researchers say, is a relative lack of information on the effectiveness of campaigns.

A study of some 30 anti-drug ads published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002 concluded that while mass-media campaigns can be successful, most have been underfunded, limiting the scope and reach and relying on the “goodwill of broadcasters” to run PSAs. Some spots, they found, actually may have had a “boomerang” effect: After viewing a half-dozen PSAs on drug use, adolescents even suggested they and their friends would be more likely to try them. To not much surprise, evidence showed that those at the highest risk were also those most difficult to influence.

A “kitchen sink” approach — multimedia campaigns that are national in scope — appears to have some impact.

Tom Hollihan, professor of communication with the USC Annenberg School, says the current media environment demands “multiple exposures that occur over time,” where a topic is circulated everywhere from social networking sites to cable news talk.

The Truth anti-smoking campaign, launched in 2000, included PSAs on TV, billboards, the Internet and in schools, with funding coming from the 1998 settlement between tobacco companies and 46 states. It featured rather dramatic images, including one where youths pile up body bags outside a major tobacco company’s headquarters.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health and commissioned by the American Legacy Foundation, which directed the Truth campaign, concluded that smoking fell from 25.3% to 18.0% between 1999 and 2002 among all students, and that the campaign accounted for approximately 22% of that decline.

In the case of Get Schooled, the goals are no less lofty. Maybe even more so.

“Success will be measured,” Dauman says, “by whether society as a whole will have made substantial progress over time in improving education.”

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