For more than 20 years, Coalition of Colorado Campus Alcohol and Drug Educators (CADE), managed by NASPA (Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education), has supported college and university prevention efforts across the state of Colorado. In 2022, CADE challenged The Basement to create a campaign that would combat the existing social perceptions that lead to the abuse of stimulants, or “study drugs,” and inspire college students to redefine their own social norms around these drugs.
Originally, the goal was to reduce stimulant use across college campuses. But research led to a bigger insight. This was a deep, long-term problem. One that would need a long-term solution. The cause of study drug abuse wasn’t just peer pressure. It was school-pressure. Parent-pressure. Grade-pressure. Performance-pressure.
The strategy evolved into something more ambitious: challenge the root of the problem: hustle culture at large. The resulting campaign centered on encouraging college students to ‘ungrind’ and focus on self care, improved mental health, and better habits.
Because our campaign was limited to college students in Colorado and was only set to run for a short time, we knew the strategy and execution would need to be provocative, memorable, and based in a truth no one else was talking about.
Starting with qualitative research, The Basement explored the root causes of the abuse of stimulants. This uncovered a key insight that no one had recognized yet.
While most anti-drug initiatives work to counter peer pressure, this particular set of “study drugs” was being recreationally taken not to relax, but to get things done. It wasn’t just peer pressure that was driving abuse. It was ALL of the pressures: school, work, homework, grades, papers, internships, midterms, and more.
We redefined the strategy to challenge ourselves to get at the real root of the problem: Hustle Culture.
This meant striking a delicate balance with creative executions. Our message had to speak directly to the problems of hustle culture, without flippantly ignoring the real and problematic challenges that force some students to work longer hours and take on extra classes. And it had to do this all with a voice that could be owned by the students themselves.
How’d we do it? By creating an entire student-led movement against hustle culture.
Posters and out-of-home trucks were presented in stages, with anti-hustle graffiti text appearing as if “sprayed over” the standard, problematic messages of hustling and grinding—messages inspired by actual hustle quotes students are exposed to every day. These graffitied words became a call-to-arms. A passionate plea to reject the hustle and grind culture that tells us we aren’t doing enough compared to our peers.
From radio to digital videos, and of course a huge social presence, our creative mocked the influencers, the hustle bros, and the old guard who are constantly measuring us against made-up-metrics.
Once students arrived at the landing page, they could learn more about the problems that a non-stop grind causes, and ways to cope with stress. There were tons of campus resources that tied our partners back into the mix. And of course, plenty of shareable content so students could continue to make the message their own.
Because the campaign specifically targeted college students in Colorado and would run only 6 weeks, the right media mix was key.
We optimized digital tactics for high impressions, to maximize awareness of this “new movement.” Further, we made sure the eye-catching creative had high recall in traditional media spaces, using “vandalized” trucks near college campuses, graffitied posters, and more, meeting students on and near campuses—but in their community as well.
In the end, running just 6 weeks in a single state, the campaign netted over 53 million impressions. Views of our downloadable GIF stickers climbed rapidly in that time period, breaking 100k before the campaign’s end. Over 60k unique users explored the site, just over the campaign alone. And high pages-per-session and time-on-site showed us an audience that was entirely engaged—digging deep into the stories, articles, and other site content.
But the most exciting evidence of success came when campuses across Colorado started taking up this grassroots message and building their own programming around it.
The metrics told us how engaging students found the creative. But now we could actually see it starting to take shape and make an impact in real time.