Is anyone still talking to FRANK?

Is anyone still talking to FRANK?

Twenty years since the government's drug advice service was launched, UK narcotics laws have never been so backwards and FRANK so quiet. Is he still active?

What’s in a name? When it comes to drugs, a lot. Stale British banter might have it that the UK has endless words for rolls (or cob, bap, lardy cake, bun, butty, muffin) but you could equally apply this to pills: Es, pingers, dizz, Mandy, MD, Garys and that’s just the nibbled half of it.

It’s no easy task, then, deciding the new name of the National Drugs Helpline – especially when it’s backed by the government and a £3m cash injection. Mother, the agency commissioned to create the campaign, decided to anthropomorphise the platform. “Drugs marketing is very clever and all drugs seem to be reduced to some human name to make them sound friendly,” Jim Thornton, then Creative Director of Mother, said at the time. “There was a sense that we needed to be part of that. In the end we liked the idea of creating an imaginary character that people would feel comfortable about phoning."

Speaking to Thornton now over email, he explains that the idea was to make the service feel less cold. “I think it was Robert Saville, founding partner of Mother, who first suggested it should feel like you're ringing a human being,” he says.

Harry Shapiro, the UK's most prolific writer on drugs over the last four decades and founder of DrugWise, remembers getting his own call from Mother. “I got phoned up in about 2003. I was working for DrugScope then as the Director of Communications,” he remembers. “The person calling me sounded like a 12 year-old marketing executive who hadn't done their homework yet.”

They told Shapiro that they wanted to create a name for the government's new campaign, one that sounded like an older brother or an uncle. The pitch? Keith. “We went back with a complete reinvention of the NDH, transforming it into Talk to KEITH, so-called after the man who probably knows more about drugs and their effects than anyone else in the world: Keith Richards,” Thornton remembers.

Shapiro was incredulous. “I said: ‘Do you actually know who the Drug Czar is?’ The kid goes ‘no.’ I told him it was Keith Halliwell and that it probably wouldn't apply too well,” he says. “That was the end of the conversation.” Talk to KEITH, with its accidental ministerial reference and, come to think of it, unintended cannabis resin pun, never came up again.

Instead, Talk to FRANK materialised in May 2003, backed by the Home Office and considered a milestone in official drugs policy. “This is the first time the government has tried to reach out to parents and carers as well as children to give them honest, credible, accessible information about drugs,” Home Office Minister Bob Ainsworth said at its launch, noting that previous helplines had not in fact stopped people doing lines.

Frank, honest advice was seemingly the way forward. The original platform consisted of a 24/7 helpline and a website mixing an A-Z of drugs, PSAs about PMA, stories from stoners, and live polls. “Your mate is caning it. What is the best way to tell them?” the first ever one reads. Sure, it was kitsch; but its dotted logo lockup, content boxes and blocky graphics wouldn’t look out of place these days on a retro-leaning fashion website.

Word quickly spread thanks to eight TV ads, all revolving around a shared tagline: “Drugs are illegal. Talking about them isn't, so talk to FRANK.” Art directed by Kim Gehrig (now known for working with Apple TV+, Rihanna, Nike and on the viral “The Best a Man Can Be” Gillette advert) and written by Caroline Pay (she’s vibe-shifted big time to CCO at Headspace), it went for comedy rather than comedowns.

“I got invited to the stakeholder meetings and suggested to them that if you're going to run ads on television it doesn't have to be po-faced and serious,” Shapiro remembers. Thornton agrees: “We said right from the start that FRANK had to feel non-judgemental and non-governmental. The subject is serious, but in order to feel like FRANK was a mate you could talk to, the last thing we wanted the ads to feel was serious, so humour became the obvious route.”

The hero ad, fittingly for Mother, sees a teenage boy call the SAS on his mum after she approaches him for a chat about drugs, leading to them parachuting into the kitchen. It’s actually not aged too badly; Shapiro admits that it’s still pretty “amusing” and it’s hard to disagree. By 2004, the campaign had helped make FRANK a household name; a 2005 report by The National Social Marketing Centre noted that it had reached almost “universal awareness” among vulnerable young people and support workers. The main early criticism, though, aside from the characters in the adverts not feeling realistic, was that people craved face-to-face help, not a faceless helpline – especially one that shared dead-ringer advice.

“I spoke to this really miserable Glaswegian guy who seemed to hate his job and anyone who took drugs. He told me a few times that doing research chemicals was a terrible idea, nobody had any data on their interactions with drugs and I'd just have to wait for it to be over.”

John, 32, Talk to FRANK caller (Image: Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

As any dealer will know, running a 24/7 drugs line isn’t easy; but at least shotters actually know what they’re talking about. The all-night call centre – FRANK’s primary offering – quickly became a source of ridicule for its repeatedly prescribed advice. “The people who were answering the phone initially got a lot of complaints about the fact that they were working off a script,” Shapiro says, explaining the contract changed hands several times. “They didn't really know what they were talking about.”

For those who actually called FRANK earnestly, he – or the underpaid, undertrained staffer ventriloquising him – wasn’t much help. John, a 32-year-old from London, tells me that he once called FRANK after tripping on 2C-I for 24 hours. “It started as a joke for me to call FRANK, but as I got more and more tired and agitated it morphed into a potentially good idea in my mind,” he remembers.

Dialling the number and explaining his concern, he got no real help. “I spoke to this really miserable Glaswegian guy who seemed to hate his job and anyone who took drugs,” he says. “He just told me a few times, increasingly aggressively and repeatedly, that doing research chemicals was a terrible idea, nobody had any data on their interactions with drugs and I'd just have to wait for it to be over.”

Scores of similar anecdotes are dotted all over the internet, with many collated under a thread started by Fesshole on Twitter. One person, Gav Alexander, tweeted that he briefly worked in one of the call centres while studying and that most of them “were on comedowns every weekend and got baked at work.” Another makes a wilder claim: “The Talk to FRANK staff included an actual, active drug user and dealer who funded holidays and other excesses while creating anti-drug paraphernalia.” The press office for Talk to FRANK declined to comment on the posts.

Something worse for FRANK happened; the service became abused. “I used to call it from the smoking area of a club asking if I should do some K on top of the pills. We all thought it was hilarious,” goes one Twitter user in the same thread. “We asked them if he was a joint or a bong man and he told us he was a bong man. Was the greatest thing for a 16 year old stoner bum to hear,” says another. The opening post sets the tone: “We used to ring it when we were high and say how great it was to be off your tits. Sorry.” The winner? Those saying they called up and asked if they should press hash.

Trolled by trollied teens, FRANK quickly became a meme; its humour backfired, turning it into the butt of the joke. “Pretty much any 0800 number will be trolled. I'm a Samaritan and you wouldn't believe the misuse of service calls we get, so I'm not sure that can be regarded as any kind of failure,” Thornton argues. “If anything it suggests we did our job and raised awareness of the service.”

Its next string of adverts didn’t help. As Shapiro says, they were “amusing for all the wrong reasons.” A particularly memorable one in 2006 introduced the idea of the Brain Warehouse, making smoking a spliff look worse than giving yourself a lobotomy without anaesthetic. Another parodied David Attenborough treating a house party of out-of-control teens as a pack of animals in the wild.

To FRANK’s credit, its 2008 advert Pablo the Drug Mule Dog, featuring a dead dog voiced by David Mitchell that had just been used as a coke mule, was a hit. “The Drug Mule Dog advert for the government’s FRANK drugs helpline is a special kind of brilliant,” wrote The Guardian journalist James Donaghy at the time, quoting a Home Office survey that suggested that 83% of teens thought the advert was effective, even if that’s hard to imagine considering it sounds like Mark Corrigan dispensing drugs advice. Simultaneously, it became more experimental with its online offering; a bizarre Spliff Pinball game showed you the side-effects of weed, while the Fruit Machine played around with potential drug combinations.

“It's really important to remember these were ads for a drug information helpline,” Thornton argues. “And information and advice that separates drug fact from drug fiction was a hell of a lot harder to find 20 years ago than it is now, plus they were completely different in every way to anything the government had put out there before on this subject. So it was always bound to be controversial.”

The difficulty in separating fact from fiction meant that FRANK’s information was often cut with disinformation, giving it a sketchy reputation. “The information was reasonably sound, but initially they pretty much didn't do anything around harm reduction,” Shapiro says. “It was basically drugs are dangerous, that’s it, and these are all terrible things that could happen to you.” He notes, for example, that they pushed the idea that you could get seven years for cannabis possession.

“I've always felt it's not been a trustworthy source,” says Chris Brady, Senior Harm Reduction Worker at Bristol-based drug checking service The Loop. Started in 2013, The Loop has led the way in a new age of drugs advice, offering free drugs testing in festivals across the UK. “We started from the viewpoint that there wasn't enough credible messaging out there. We thought that by getting out there into places where people were using drugs we could give honest impartial advice,” he says. “While it wasn't a direct response to the old FRANK, it was certainly part of that, that these messages need getting out there.”

Another headache hit FRANK when the Tories came into power in 2010, 2-3 years into the financial crash. “I don’t think the Tories were convinced that spending millions of pounds on this was worth the money,” Shapiro says, noting that the Department of Health's efforts to match caller numbers with the British Crime Survey proved too complex, the number of variables sky-high. “And loath as I am to say it, I think they were probably right.”

Going off-grid for a few years, the last time FRANK dropped a press release was in 2013 for its tenth anniversary, this time claiming that 67% of 400 teens asked would head to it for drugs advice. A new range of adverts included butchers passing around a “joint” of meat at a party, a gymnast having a bad “comedown” during a stunt and a corner shop worker starting to rap when a young lad asked to buy a “wrap.”An online chat service was added – not too helpfully operational during the middle of the work and school day, from 2pm until 6pm – but a genuinely impressive 35 million user milestone was celebrated.

And that’s the last we ever heard of FRANK. Over the last decade, the service hasn’t launched a single new campaign or sent out any comms, seemingly doing a runner. It still exists in the exact same form as 2013 – a 24/7 helpline and a 2-6pm online chat service – but has had absolutely no promo. According to a FOI Request from Huck, FRANK's unique page views have dropped every single year since 2015 from 20.1m to just 8m last year. In 2022, there were only 38,240 unique interactions across its helpline and chat services, clocking in at an average of just 105 unique conversations per day or four per hour, compared to Childline’s call every 25 seconds. In 2007, even when there was just the helpline, FRANK was hitting 38,000 calls in a single month.

“The launch of FRANK completely changed the way drugs were talked about in mass media. It felt like the first time those in authority had accepted that youngsters experimenting with drugs is a simple fact of modern life.”

Jim Thornton, helped launch Talk to FRANK (Image: Girl with red hat on Unsplash)

Requests concerning its budget and employment figures were not granted; all we know is that Cxpartners runs its website (costing £600,000 for two years) and SERCO heads up its call centre. Since for the 2009/2010 financial year, FRANK’s budget was a hefty £5.07 million, with around two-thirds of that seemingly spent on advertising, it’s fair to estimate that FRANK is still a seven-figure operation. The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), after repeated chase-ups, refused to answer HUCK’s specific questions but did offer some intel. The website was silently updated in 2018 “with additional content and tech updates to make it more accessible” and provide information on mixing drugs.

It’s bizarre this was kept quiet, because it’s actually pretty good stuff. Brady, who also works as an NHS Substance Misuse Trainer in Oldham, looks at the website for the first time in years during our call. He’s impressed by how much better the information is. “I've always said be cautious with FRANK when training NHS staff about drugs and alcohol, because its primary purpose is to persuade people not to use drugs by focusing on the negatives, but they've clearly taken note of what's been done in the field,” he says.

Though much of their current information has seemingly been cribbed from services like The Loop, they now have a drug-mixing matrix, a more comprehensive list of chemicals and even advice on doing half a pill at a time. “It's definitely not as good as it should be,” Brady adds. “But I have to say I was ready to come on this call and absolutely rip it to pieces, but it's better than it used to be.”

Weirdly, the DHSC’s response to Huck noted that “there is no scope for an expanded digital experience beyond the current offering,” suggesting that it’ll stay as it is. Several quietly stashed government assessments and audits of FRANK over the last few years, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, call for greater investment in Talk to FRANK to make it a sustainable service, more blog posts and making the web chat available beyond 2pm-6pm as peak times are late at night. “PHE should understand that Frank provides an important public service and without appropriate funding will deteriorate in its relevance and value,” recommends a 2020 audit published just five days before the UK’s first national lockdown, getting lost amid the chaos.

Perhaps that’s why its suggestions seemingly haven’t been put into action, making FRANK still feel outdated. Even worse is that FRANK still hasn’t signed-up to any form of social media, absent from Instagram, TikTok or even Facebook. The Loop, on the other hand, are testing 250,000 people’s drugs every year, sharing alerts on Instagram and have even gained charity status. While FRANK’s original tone of voice tried to stay down with the kids, it has lost touch. The website information might now be more sound, but it’s also lost its original aesthetic, turning into a simulacrum, a Government Gateway drugs service. Also, who the hell actually calls ketamine Donkey Dust, cocaine Pebbles or acid Paper Mushrooms?

Thornton is right in saying that FRANK paved the way for the likes of The Loop. “I actually think the launch of FRANK completely changed the way drugs were talked about in mass media,” he says. “It felt like the first time those in authority had accepted that youngsters experimenting with drugs is a simple fact of modern life, and therefore much better for them to be informed than ill-informed, and much more responsible of those in authority to be the ones giving them that information. It felt like the first time that everyone realised trying to scare people, or demonising drugs, simply wouldn't wash any more.”

In a sense, this forms another of FRANK’s issues; it’s perhaps now seen as too radical by the likes of Suella Braverman. While non-governmental organisations like The Loop (though, they have had a first Home Office test centre miraculously just approved) can be freer in what they say, FRANK is confined by the red tape of a deeply blue government. With the UK’s drug laws drastically draconian, FRANK isn’t getting the help it needs. This makes FRANK a middle-ground nothing, unsatisfactory for both progressives and conservatives.

“They can probably spend a couple of hundred grand a year letting [FRANK] tick over without anybody jumping up and down and talking about the number of hospital beds. It’s basically ticking a box for the government to have something.”

Harry Shapiro, Founder of DrugWise (Image: Goashape on Unsplash)

But what will happen to FRANK? 

“In the grand scheme of government spending, they can probably spend a couple of hundred grand a year letting it tick over without anybody jumping up and down and talking about the number of hospital beds,” Shapiro says. “It’s basically ticking a box for the government to have something.” 

Brady is in agreement: “There is always going to be a form of FRANK but what they're not doing is promoting it and maybe that's deliberate,” he says. Both question whether a Labour government would even be positive for FRANK; Keir – or, as unsatisfied Labour supporters aptly have it, Keith – Starmer, after all, has said that the smell of weed is ruining lives.

FRANK, it seems, will tick along much like any other public service in the UK – continuing to exist but without any positive change, given just enough budget to stay alive but not enough to properly thrive. Even so, it was so effective at the time that it’ll stick in the mind of a particular generation for years to come. The service is part of our shared consciousness, a mysterious public-service figure that seemed to lurk in the shadows; whispered by awkward teachers masquerading as drug experts in fidgety school assemblies, referenced in uncanny ads halfway through Skins and pasted on bus stop posters that flashed past on the way back from our first big nights out. And though it’s been surpassed by better, more effective services today, it also paved the way for them. Thornton, at least, is proud of its effects: “Frankly, if you’ll forgive the pun, if just one kid found the service beneficial and helpful, then I couldn’t give a fuck what its detractors said!”

Follow Kyle on Instagram.

Enjoyed this article? Follow Huck on Twitter and Instagram.