Why the GNWT chose augmented-reality cannabis youth ads

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Youth in the Northwest Territories will receive government-backed cannabis education through augmented-reality ads in magazines and on posters.

The ads are the first part of a scheme backed by $1.8 million from Health Canada to help the territorial government create a "comprehensive and interactive cannabis public education campaign."

Four augmented-reality ads, unveiled on Friday at Yellowknife's public library, feature northern icons like an Inukshuk and raven delivering advice on cannabis use and its effects.

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Using an app on their phones, youth will be able to see comics containing the ads come to life on posters and in magazines to be distributed across the territory.

While the augmented-reality components were mocked by some after their launch, the territorial government said youth in communities had responded well – adding the comics are the first step in a broader campaign to engage people.

"The posters you see in front of you today? The youth and Elders were engaged and we got a significant amount of input from them," said Glen Abernethy, the territory's health minister.

Abernethy admitted he found one panel, featuring the aurora taking the form of an unborn baby, to be 'creepy' – but said it had the desired effect on youth.


View the augmented reality panels from the new youth cannabis education campaign.

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"[The panels] may not resonate with everybody, that’s obvious," said Abernethy. "We’ve done programs at a territorial level where they’ve worked in one community and didn’t necessarily work in another, which is why the second phase is so important – engaging at a community level.

"Having said that, we did engage youth on this and get a lot of positive feedback from youth across the territory.

"For instance, they seemed to really like the creepy baby – which, when I first saw it, I thought it might be not as popular, because it is a little creepy. But it really resonated well with the kids, different than it might with adults."

Plays and workshops

The idea for the campaign, which features illustrations by Cody Fennell and augmented reality work by Verge Communications, came from wine bottles.

Health department officials said they drew inspiration from the "living labels" of California vineyard 19 Crimes, which allow people to play short videos on 19 Crimes' bottles using similar technology.

Comics and augmented reality are seen by the territory both as a novel mix and as platforms more likely to engage a younger demographic than traditional advertising, though the campaign will also appear in traditional media and on social media.

Youth across the territory had already seen the new cannabis campaign as part of a soft launch prior to Friday's announcement.

Officials said the young people they met had, almost exclusively, never used augmented-reality apps until introduced to them by this campaign as it toured the NWT.

Health Canada's money, which is spread over three years, will next be used for individual projects in each community about cannabis. For example, communities will be given the opportunity to produce their own plays about cannabis in an attempt to reach local youth.

"We didn’t want to presuppose what the youth in each community wanted to design or how they want to get the message out," said Abernethy.

"We’re going to provide them with some resources and the information they need; we’re going to help facilitate the design and delivery of those – some plays and workshops we can deliver, but it’s more than that. If we hear they don’t like that, we’ll try something else, we’re open to that."

Fennell, the artist, told Cabin Radio he was "fairly confident" his project would succeed in getting its message across.

His work will be seen in giant posters on school walls and in magazines given to teachers for use in leading classroom discussions.

"They supplied me with all the information I needed to inform kids about. It ping-ponged back and forth between me and the government until we were both satisfied," he said.

Alcoholic elephant

Initial reaction online focused on how the augmented reality clips portray northern icons, the cost of the work, and the messages the territory chose to convey.

However, the territory says it will judge the campaign's success on its impact with youth, not residents as a whole.

How that will be evaluated was not defined, but the minister said the project should be judged on all of its phases, not the comics and augmented reality in isolation.

Meanwhile, health officials privately concede alcohol, not cannabis, remains "the elephant in the room" for the Northwest Territories.

While millions of dollars are being spent on cannabis administration and education, it's not clear if a similar youth campaign about alcohol and its effects is being planned.

A Health Canada-funded study found the impacts of alcohol use cost the Northwest Territories $56 million in 2014, the most recent year for which figures are available.

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