The Control States Best Practices Awards 2015 Winners

Best Responsible Consumption Program (TIE)

North Carolina Talks It Out

By Melissa Niksic

When North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory appointed Jim Gardner to serve as Chairman of the North Carolina
Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) Commission in 2013, he also gave Gardner a primary charge: combat underage drinking. The state currently spends $1.3 billion annually on incidents related to underage drinking. In addition to putting an enormous cost burden on North Carolina, underge drinking is also responsible for the loss of two lives per week across the state. But what can be done to stop it?

Under Gardner’s direction, the ABC Commission created the Initiative to Reduce Underage Drinking and conducted a large-scale qualitative and quantitative research study across the state. The research produced some startling statistics: the average age children begin drinking is 13.9 years old. Adults and children were surveyed, and children viewed underage drinking as being a much more serious problem than the adults did. Additionally, the research indicated that children were looking to their parents to provide them with information and guidance about alcohol, and that parents felt unequipped to handle those conversations.

“The study showed that this was a very big problem, and that it starts even earlier with children than anyone really anticipated,” Gardner says.

After reaching out to 17 other states for advice, Gardner commissioned a robust campaign designed to give parents the tools they need to talk with their children about drinking. The “Talk it Out” initiative is described by Gardner as a “get in your face” program that drives parents to the website through various channels, including television and radio ads, billboards and social media. The website contains extensive resources for parents, including facts and figures about underage drinking, tips on how to talk to children about drinking and information on how to seek additional help.

The approach used in the campaign was direct and powerful. The website video, which debuted in the winter of 2014, featured four families discussing how underage drinking has affected their lives. In one segment, a mother describes how her 18-year-old son was involved in a car accident after drinking while intoxicated. He was in a coma for five months and suffered irreparable brain damage. Another parent discusses how her daughter was killed in an accident after attending a party where the hosts served alcohol to underage children.

The first round of ads portrayed a mother pinning her corsage on her daughter’s dress, but the daughter was lying in a coffin. The second ad showed a father routinely preparing mashed bananas for a child, but the child was actually a young adult. Prior to their release, the ads were vetted by families that have been impacted by the consequences of underage drinking. The consensus was that the raw honesty depicted in the videos was an effective way of getting the message across.


“Prevention is a life-or-death matter,” Gardner says. “We needed to make sure people paid attention.”

The ABC Commission spent $2.5 million during the first year of the Talk it Out campaign. After the first wave of advertising concluded, another research study was conducted in order to gauge the campaign’s effectiveness. Results showed that children who viewed the ads retained more information than adults did. This signaled a big problem to Gardner, as parents were the primary target of the campaign.

In summer of 2015, the second wave of the campaign launched with a refined focus on the role of parental
responsibility. The rollout coincided with the back-to-school timeframe, stressing that parents need to take the time to talk to their children about underage drinking before it’s too late. The budget for this year’s campaign also increased to $3.1 million, which includes the addition of several new staff positions solely dedicated to supporting this initiative. These staff are working to raise awareness and collaborate with coalitions across the state that have dealt with underage drinking on local levels.

Once the current ad campaign comes to an end, another research study will take place to measure its effectiveness and help inform how the next iteration of Talk it Out will be set up. Gardner says the state will continue investing in the program, which he hopes will ultimately result in a reduction of the money North Carolina spends on incidents related to underage drinking. Most importantly, Garner hopes the program will save lives.

“We’ll truly be successful when we lose NO lives in this state due to underage drinking,” he says. “We have our work cut out for us. This is a problem that you can’t talk away, and you can’t treat it away, and the state needs to be willing to continue investing money and resources.”




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