The “Stoner Sloth” advertising campaign cost the New South Wales government $350,000 and took 265 public servant work hours to pull together, according to details released under freedom of information laws.
The advertising campaign, which cast large, Chewbacca-like sloth characters in the roles of stoned teenagers to show the dulling effects of cannabis, was launched in December. It was widely derided for both message and execution, and was even described by the NSW premier, Mike Baird – whose Department of Premier and Cabinet managed the campaign – as “quite something”.
The National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre (NCPIC) distanced itself from the campaign, saying “the current stoner sloth campaign doesn’t reflect NCPIC views on how cannabis harms campaigns should be approached”.
According to detailed costings of the project, obtained by the NSW Greens member of the upper house Dr Mehreen Faruqi under Government Information (Public Access) laws, the total cost for the campaign was $351,790, of which $36,386 was paid to the advertising firm Saatchi & Saatchi.
The advertising firm previously defended the campaign, saying: “The videos we created were designed as part of a preventative campaign specifically for teens; the audience is not for adults or long-term cannabis users.”
It is understood the $500,000 figure originally attached to the campaign includes time spent by public servants, which was equivalent to 38 days, or almost two months, of full-time work.
The spend included $115,000 spent on research and evaluation, divided between a literature review by the Sax Institute and the University of New South Wales on the effectiveness of cannabis education programs ($28,000), research by the University of Technology Sydney ($23,000) and market research ($64,000).
(In a statement to Guardian Australia, a NSW government clarified that the literature review was undertaken by NCPIC as part of UNSW.)
A further $136,700 was spent on production, including $59,814 for production company 8Com Australia and $23,000 on actors, while the remaining $99,990 went to the media agency Universal McCann.
Farqui said the costs attached to the campaign made it even more inexplicable.
“It is baffling and frankly quite depressing that the NSW government wasted this much public money and hundreds of hours of public service time on such a poorly conceived idea,” she told Guardian Australia.
“Looking at the $60,000 plus spent on market research alone, you’d think they would have had a better idea about what actually might have connected with people.
“Instead, the Baird government became the laughing stock of the world as the now infamous sloth made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.”
High on the list of criticisms was the unfortunate similarity between the URLs of stonersloth.com.au, a Tumblr-based teen-oriented website linked to the campaign, and stonersloth.com, a Colorado-based “cannabis solutions” website.
The operator of the latter shared the Stoner Sloth ads on his website, along with a list of reasons why it was not effective.
Despite the campaign driving “a good deal of traffic” to his website, the operator, who gave his name as Daniel, was critical of the Stoner Sloth idea and told Guardian Australia that it was an “outdated dramatisation” that used ineffectual scare tactics.
“Like many people who smoke, I have had sloth moments,” he said. “You can, as it is said, ‘overmedicate’ and feel couch-locked, not wanting to do anything – but I know people who get that without smoking too.”
Faruqi said the campaign was “doomed to fail” because the NSW government “refused to take an adult approach to drugs or drug use that didn’t infantilise people or talk down to them”.
“We are in dire need of an informed and evidence-based drugs debate in this country,” she said.
New South Wales is one of three states that has pledged to hold trials on the use of medical cannabis for pain relief.