The Startsmart Foundation Case Study

The StartSMART Foundation (Stop More Alcohol Related Tragedies) was an altruistic endeavor conceived by Bill Hinchey, one of the founders of OraSure Technologies in Bethlehem, Pa. Bill had a personal connection to teen drunk driving through his best friend, whose son was killed by a drunk driver. The idea behind the foundation: a way to use the latest science developed at OraSure to reduce the number of alcohol-related tragedies among teenagers.


StartSMART was provocative and controversial from the get-go. Just the very idea: a quick and easy way for teenagers to test their own blood levels for alcohol via an oral-based swab, soon to be available on shelves everywhere, made some parents extremely nervous (and/or extremely angry), which we learned firsthand in initial focus-group testing. Our job: brand the foundation and create the messaging with this in mind – and come up with a way to reach teenagers on a tiny budget.

Our first initiative centered on a pilot program launched in conjunction with a school district in Erie, Pa. We collaborated with the client to develop the program, working with school administrators, parents and students, and created all of the advertising and promotional materials.


There were two main goals: reduce tragedies by at least 50%, and attract U.S. government funding to initiate programs across the country.


Testing had proven two points, unequivocally.

1) The best way to reach teenagers with a message that resonates, especially when that message is about the dangers of drugs and alcohol, is through other teens. Parents, teachers, healthcare professionals and teen advocates were no match for peer-approved endorsements – as teens will listen to (and/or change their behavior for) their friends before any adult. So, rather than a “top down” approach, we worked with our client to develop a strategy whereby students would be given OraSure’s Q.E.D. Saliva Alcohol Test and encouraged to take an active role in policing themselves. With this tool, students could test themselves or others before driving a car or taking some other action that could lead to tragedy. 2) When it comes to teens and warnings about alcohol – the more visceral and brutally honest, the better the message sticks. 

As for media, given the budget was too small for TV or radio, we opted for the next best thing: the movies. Local theaters were the best option for collecting large numbers of teens in one place – and nothing beats a dark movie house for a captive audience. 


The centerpiece of our campaign was a 90-second movie trailer, simply built from type and still photography but powerful nonetheless, scored by us and mastered at Dolby Studios in 7.1 sound. A series of posters and banner ads were taken from the trailer using the same images and hard language, and hung throughout Erie – including local schools. Every execution presented a question on a standardized test, so it looks and feels familiar, but every question was written to hit extremely hard. Our campaign line, "Your Friends, Your Call," clearly put both the responsibility and the power in the students’ hands.


The program ran for 12 months. During that period, “tragedies,” as defined by the school district and a board of parents, decreased by 34% over the prior 3 years. (In spite of this success, our client was unable to get funding from the U.S. government to expand the program – though efforts to secure funding continue today.)