FaceTheFentanyl: Assessing the social marketing campaign


Social marketing is “communication aimed at persuading or informing an audience about a social issue goal, or organization, usually one that is non-commercial in nature.” (Humphreys, 2016).  In this case, the FacetheFentanyl social marketing campaign was launched by the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP) in March 2016, in partnership with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Humber College Ad Centre, in response to skyrocketing fentanyl overdoses and deaths.  At the time of the launch, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths in Ontario since 2010 stood at 577.  More recent numbers indicate that more than 850 Ontarians died from opioid-related causes in 2016 alone.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The overall FacetheFentanyl campaign is divided into two parts:  enforcement of existing laws and a social media campaign, which organizers viewed as the best way to educate at-risk Ontarians.  The latter is the focus of this paper.  The website includes black-and-white photos of attractive young adults who were victims of overdoses, none of whom looked like an apparent addict.  With the hashtag #THENEWFWORD, the website constantly updates the number of overdoses, provides facts on fentanyl, lists signs of an overdose, stresses the importance of the drug naloxone in reversing the effects of an overdose, makes posters available and provides contact information.  Two tools were developed to encourage dialogue and information exchange:  Twitter and Facebook accounts, which include similar information and various photographs and graphics.

 Failures and successes

The initial reaction to the campaign was very positive.  The Star called it an innovative and bright campaign and opined that “the chiefs of police should be applauded for the ingenuity of the campaign behind the FaceTheFentanyl campaign”   Similarly , Communicato deemed it one of the six best Canadian social media campaigns of 2016.

While it is true that the web site and Twitter and Facebook accounts were professionally prepared and include useful information, I am a little less sanguine in my assessment for three reasons.  Firstly, there are many different Key Performance Indicators (KPIs)  that can potentially  be monitored to measure the success of a market oriented campaign, including engagement rate, share of voice, goal conversion rate, return on investment (ROI) and customer service. While an adequate discussion of these would require another paper, what is important is that there is no ideal KPI and that metrics pertaining to  government or public initiatives such as this are even more difficult to formulate, implement and interpret.

As there can be no doubt that the number of fentanyl overdose cases continues to skyrocket, one might argue that the campaign has been a failure.  While I will admit that saving even one life would be positive,  there is no way to determine whether this has happened.  While the website indicated that 477 people have been educated regarding naloxone, did the individuals concerned merely click on the tab or go to their pharmacy to get a prescription or perhaps change their lifestyle choices?

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Photo by Timur Saglambilek on Pexels.com

Secondly, even more traditional  metrics related to their Twitter efforts, for example, demonstrate meager results.  As of now, there have only been 203 Tweets with 682 Followers and 56 Likes, hardly impressive after two years, given the population of Ontario.  And the Tweets and Retweets have  all been by authorities, professionals and academics – none from the average, young Ontarian at-risk or drug user, the intended campaign targets.

Finally, none of my classmates or anyone to whom I have spoken have been aware of this campaign; nor could I find any other subsequent references to the success of the campaign online.


There were originally two distinct targets of the campaign:

  • “average” teen and young adult Ontarians who may unknowingly be at risk. This is because “Since fentanyl is cut into drugs you can’t see, smell or taste it”; and
  • drug users who are knowingly taking fentanyl or those who may imbibe not realizing that fentanyl is part of the cocktail they are consuming.

Unfortunately, neither of these target groups seem to have been involved in the Facebook or Twitter chatter, as indicated in Success and Failures above which suggests that it has not been that successful.   While this may be understandable among the second target category as users may well not have access to cell phones or computers since they are often on the street; but it also suggests that the first target group might be reluctant to engage due to fear of identification, embarrassment or retribution.  In my view, other appropriate communication vehicles for the second target group would include billboard advertising in areas where users congregate (such as back alleys, bars and public health centres) and word of mouth by street level professionals.   It is not clear whether these have been undertaken.

One question I have is whether there was originally or there evolved a third target, that is the professionals, academics and law authorities involved with this issue, as a means of information exchange and updates.  If so, this might have resulted in more chatter by these individuals, thus discouraging involvement by the target groups.

What could be done differently?

            The social media campaign could have been done differently, as follows:

  • it should have been more diverse to include other basic communication vehicles and perhaps newspaper and television advertisements for average, young more affluent Ontarians;
  • I suspect that OACP did not have funding to undertake some of these more expensive traditional but equally important vehicles;
  • one wonders why the primary partner was the RCMP, when reluctance to be involved with and disdain for authorities among target groups would likely be an obvious problem. Why not engage with more representative and wide-ranging groups such as the Canadian Association of People who Use Drugs (CAPUD), which at least has some online presence.  This might ensure greater buy-in by the target groups and attract more funding for a better campaign, as suggested above.


There is no question that the improper use of fentanyl and the resulting overdose deaths is an epidemic worthy of efforts by all those concerned to educate the two target groups and help eradicate the drug’s use.  The OACP has undertaken its own response to this situation in conjunction with two partners using two social media accounts and a traditional website.

Although more work is needed to elaborate, undertake and interpret social media KPIs in general, as I have stated above, the seeming failure of this specific campaign on two counts, at least, may be due to three factors:  a campaign which was not diverse enough in its elements, insufficient funding and a failure to work with appropriate allies.

At the same time, without contacting the OACP to get further information on what KPIs it has used, if any, and further details on how these are being tracked and implemented, it is difficult to know how successful this campaign has been.  It would also be useful to contact other enforcement authorities and first line professionals to determine (even anecdotally) if their efforts have led to any positive results.

Have you heard about the FaceTheFentanyl campaign?  What is your reaction?

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