Empathy over stigma

DC is honored to have been selected by the state of CA to tackle one of the most challenging issues of our generation. And to be covered in AdAge.

screenshot of article from Ad Age. Headline reads "California names Duncan Channon lead agency on $40 million opioid education campaign."

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By Aleda Stam

The California Department of Health has named San Francisco-based Duncan Channon as the lead creative and media agency for a new $40 million opioid education campaign. 

The two-year contract was decided after an RFP process initiated by the state in October that called for a California agency with no conflicts of interest, including work with tobacco, e-cigarette, cannabis or pharmaceutical companies.

The campaign comes as fentanyl-related deaths have surged in the last few years, more than tripling among Californians aged 20-34 between 2018 and 2020. The $40 million allotment is part of $45.8 million allocated to the state’s Opioid Settlements Fund State Operations, which consists of settlement money from litigation with companies accused of contributing to the opioid crisis including McKinsey, Janssen Pharmaceuticals (owned by Johnson & Johnson), McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen.

The campaign will start in two phases. In the first, Duncan Channon will immediately begin media planning and buying for an existing Centers for Disease Control education campaign. It wasn’t immediately clear which agency produced that campaign.

In the second, Duncan Channon will start strategizing to develop a new campaign that defines the opioid and fentanyl crisis for Californians, displays the paths that can lead to opioid use and connects to those most at risk—young adults aged 16-39.  

In an effort to “meet people where they are,” the agency is giving the campaign a tone of empathy instead of using scare tactics, said Duncan Channon CEO and Partner Andy Berkenfield.

“The last thing we are going to do is wag a finger at anybody or follow the failed tactics of ‘Just Say No,’ which has never really worked,” Berkenfield said. “The state strongly believes—and we are very much in line with them—that our job is to engage in empathetic conversation and ultimately reduce harm.” 

It will also work to normalize new strategies to reduce the prevalence of opioid and fentanyl overdose instances, which includes raising awareness about how teens and young adults carrying Narcan can help save someone experiencing a fentanyl overdose. Properly conveying that message also means navigating the often contentious parent-teen relationships and breaking down stigmas.

“We have to bring those groups of people together and have them have a shared understanding,” Berkenfield said. “We want parents to be supportive of kids who want to bring Narcan to a party, so we have to look at the situation from both sides of the conversation.” 

The work is expected to launch in 2024 and will include creative to target Latino, Black and AANHPI communities through partnerships with agency partners Acento and APartnership. The public education effort will include TV, radio, out-of-home, social and digital media and influencer activations, as well as unpaid media by partner PR agency Berlin Rosen.

This is Duncan Channon’s latest win in California’s public service and health space. The agency won a $40 million contract from the state in 2021 to create a campaign strengthening public support for vaccines. The agency also worked on a statewide effort to raise awareness for COVID therapeutics this year and has led multicultural integrated public education work for the California Tobacco Prevention Program since 2015.