Sharon Smith just got a lesson she thinks other people need to learn: "You can make a difference."
Last fall, she opened up a bill from a department store and out fell an advertisement for a new perfume called "Addict." It pictured a slender model clothed mostly in beaded sweat with an anxious expression on her face, as if she needed a fix.
Ms. Smith was appalled. Her own daughter had been an addict - a heroin addict. At 18 she died of an overdose.
"The word 'addict' connotes my daughter being violently ill, when she was sitting in corner rocking, seeing her desperately needing another fix," says the Pennsylvania mother.
Smith made her feelings about the ad clear, and a grass-roots campaign ensued. Much to her surprise, and that of advertising experts, perfumemaker Christian Dior took notice and last week pledged to overhaul its advertising campaign.
The process taught Smith something that other grass-roots groups are beginning to catch on to: Advertisers are becoming increasingly sensitive to public opinion. In part, that's due to the fragmenting of the television audience into smaller niche markets, which has made them more sensitive about offending their target audience. But some analysts say it's also a product of the post-9/11 world and fallout from business scandals: The notion of social responsibility is back on the corporate agenda.
And a growing number of advocacy groups that deal with everything from drug addiction to girls' health are taking advantage of that, changing the images we see every day.
"Most people feel powerless in the face of these huge corporations and never write, never protest, and never do anything," says Jean Kilbourne, an advertising and media critic. "In fact, they're quite sensitive to public opinion when they get any response to an ad. They assume a whole lot of other people feel that way as well."
The Dior Addict controversy is a case in point. Soon after Smith first saw the ad, an advocacy group called Faces and Voices of Recovery (FAVOR) put the news on its website and alerted others in the substance-abuse community, which got to work locally.
In October, the Detroit City Council passed a resolution condemning the product. Local antidrug groups in El Paso, Texas, persuaded a chain store there to stop carrying it. And the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America successfully urged the US Army to stop selling Addict at its PX chain, which is one of the nation's largest retailers.
There was also a flurry of news articles, and Dior was inundated with e-mails from around the world. Yet the expectation in the ad world was that Dior would ride out the controversy.
Instead, Dior reached out to the activists and asked for a meeting. "I went into this meeting thinking Dior didn't understand, didn't care, and wouldn't take action," says FAVOR's Susan Rook, a former CNN anchor and former cocaine addict. "I was wrong. They really genuinely didn't realize what they had done, and the minute they realized it, they were willing to make changes."
Dior will keep the name "Addict," a trademark, but will ensure that it's always preceded by "Dior" to make clear that the word applies to Dior products - and nothing else. It also agreed to change several images that appeared to connote drug use and drop the tag line "Admit it," which relates to the first step in the recovery process.
"They did what they felt was the right thing to do," says James Fingeroth, a Dior spokesman.
Other groups have had similar success. In September 2000, Campbell Soup Co. started running an ad that promoted soup as a way for prepubescent girls to lose weight. Joe Kelly was not amused. He's the executive director of Dads and Daughters (DADs), a group dedicated to encouraging fathers to actively participate in their daughters' lives.
As far as Mr. Kelly was concerned, the Campbell ad tapped into the preoccupation with body image that has been connected to a dramatic increase in eating disorders among young women. He sent out an e-mail alert to his 2,000 members, who in turn wrote to Campbell. The company soon agreed to pull the ad. Since then, DADs has had success in getting four other major advertising campaigns changed because of what they felt were images destructive to young girls.
"We ask people to put their own daughter's face in the picture, and when it comes to marketing, that's a very powerful thing to do," says Kelly.
But Kelly and DADs has not always had success. Sometimes their letters are met with silence, others with "thank you for writing and we're going to ignore you."
Still, Kelly's work has inspired others, including a newly formed group called Mind on the Media. They're planning to hold a round table with advertising executives to discuss the impact of advertising images on young women.
While Sharon Smith wishes Christian Dior had changed the entire name of its new perfume line, she is satisfied with what the company has agreed to do.
"Maybe it will be a lesson to other corporations to be more aware and responsible," she says. "Our children's lives are at risk here."