Dare to Ignore Drug War Propaganda

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For the past 25 years, American has been fighting a war that cannot be won. The war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives and ruined millions more. The government spends over $20 billion dollars a year on police protection, judicial processes and prison services related to the drug war (drugwarfacts.org). According to Clinton’s drug czar, Barry McCaffery, “we are winning the war on drugs,” although the numbers seem to tell another story. Drug usage has risen drastically in the past 20 years among our most vulnerable of citizens, middle school and high school children. Since the Anti-Drug Abuse Act was passed in 1986, drug use by high school students have increased steadily, in 1998, the number of children in eighth grade who report smoking marijuana tripled since 1991 from 3.2% to 10.2%. The end of the drug war seems only possible by educating our younger generations and their parents about the negative aspects of drug abuse. The American government and other anti-drug campaigns spend over $** dollars a year on advertising and educating Americans under the premise that knowledge is power. Using print media, radio and television, we are brainwashing our nation. We are not presented with all of the facts; instead we are told drugs will destroy our lives. But how effective is this massive campaign and exactly what is it telling the young people of America?

One of the most infamous failures of stringent drug laws was Alcohol Prohibition in the 1920’s. On October 10, 1919, the 18th amendment, otherwise known as the Volstead Act, was passed by congress, which stated, “No person shall manufacture, sell, barter, transport, import, export, deliver, furnish or posses intoxicating liquor except as authorized in this act.” This national decree began a 12 year long battle with corruption, scandal, gangsters, smuggling, jazz, tabloids, entertainment, violence and a massive cultural revolution. The speakeasy became an integral part of American life. Posters and other texts from the time portray alcohol to be evil; it destroyed families and ruined careers. It made good, wholesome men and women turn into man, murderous sex driven degenerates [figure 1]. It was also associated with the German enemy during and after the First World War. “Pro-Germanism is the only froth from the German’s beer saloon. Our German Socialist Party and the German American Alliance are the spawn of the saloon… Prohibition is the infallible submarine chaser (Sinclair, 122).” After twelve years, in 1933, the 21st Amendment repealed the Volstead Act, ending Constitutional authority for Prohibition.

Despite its brief flirtation with illegality, alcohol is still the most popular and socially acceptable legal drug in the United States but according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, marijuana is the most popular illegal drug. Approximately 1009 metric tons of marijuana was smoked in 2000, up from 894 tons in 1998 (ONDCP) although this number is considered to be a little low. At the turn of the 20th century, America began create legislature that would criminalize drugs such as marijuana, heroin and cocaine. Before this time, these drugs were used for medical purposes. Marijuana was used as a pain reliever and cough suppressant. Use of medical marijuana declined after 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act passed but it was not criminalized until the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937. One year before, in 1936, a movie was released entitled Reefer Madness (also released under the titles of The Burning Question, Dope Addict and Doped Youth). Made in conjunction with the FBI, Louis Gasnier’s film depicted the “dangers” of marijuana consumption such as “sudden uncontrolled laughter… hallucinations… emotional disturbances… the loss of all power to resist physical emotions… leading finally to acts of shocking violence ending often in incurable insanity.” The film is aimed at parents, desperately trying to warn them of the perils that face their children in the form of marijuana (it was originally release as Tell Your Children). The film opens at a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) meeting and recalls the story of a young man as he is drawn into a group of teenagers who smoke marijuana regularly in a “drug den” of an apartment. He ends up sleeping with a young temptress and killing the girl he loves. The film ends with the high school principal urging parents to warn their children about marijuana and how it can destroy their lives.

The film is one of the worst propaganda films ever made. Gasnier, the director, has been hailed for his mediocrity. In the case of Reefer Madness, his lack knowledge regarding marijuana is evident throughout the film; one can only hope that he assumed that his audience knew nothing about marijuana either. While watching the film, the absurdity of the behavior depicted is obvious to most of its viewers and it is difficult to believe the actions of the characters at any given time. The film was rediscovered in 1970 ad has developed into a cult classic as it unintentionally mocks the lack of knowledge regarding marijuana during the thirties and into today.

During the 1960’s, America was at war, internally and internationally. Race issues dominated the news as the situation in Vietnam began to swell. Music was taking a psychedelic turn and across the country, people were experimenting with many types of drugs. Some of America’s most amazing poetry, art, and music came from this period including Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Ken Kesey and more. America experienced a cultural revolution in the mid to late 60s, much of which was perpetuated by the consumption of illicit drugs. Not only did the counter-culture produce radical artwork but also controversial organizations began to spring up around the nation. Beginning with political activist groups opposed to the Vietnam War, other aspects of the government began to be questioned, including its drug policy. NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was founded in 1970 to move public opinion sufficiently to achieve the repeal of marijuana prohibition so that the responsible use of cannabis by adults is no longer subject to penalty. The revolutionary voice was heard to combat the sweeping one-side perspective from the government.

A few years after this social upheaval, in 1972, President Nixon appointed a National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse. The panel, known as the Shafer Commission, called for decriminalizing marijuana and a policy of control based on medical risk in a report entitled Marihuana: A Signal of Misunderstanding. In it, the commission states that in the group of American young adults studies…no significant physical, biochemical, or mental abnormalities could be attributed solely to their marihuana smoking (page 61).” And in the end the commission recommended “the following changes in federal law: Possession of marihuana for personal use would no longer be an offense…casual distribution of small amounts of marihuana for no remuneration, or insignificant remuneration not involving profit would no longer be an offense (page 152).” Nixon promptly denounced its report due to his personal uneducated values and declared a “War on Drugs.” To enforce this domestic war, he created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in 1973 whose mission was to “enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States… those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States (www.dea.gov).”

Among this massive government push to eradicate drugs (not including tobacco and alcohol), the nation as a whole began to soften its opinions regarding marijuana consumption. This is evident in the late 70s wherein many situational comedies, marijuana was being presented as a relatively harmless and humorous escape from care and boredom (Signorelli, 116). Marijuana became funny and smokers were even funnier. There we also many references to marijuana on late night talk shows and adult comedy programming. The infamous duo, Cheech and Chong broke into mainstream popular culture with their film Up in Smoke, which features Cheech Marin and Tommy Chong in their crazy, marijuana induced adventures. The film is considered a classic.

The perspective in dramas, however, was much different. In 1976, two reports were released regarding the portrayal of drugs on television. The studies by Winick and Winick showed that illicit drugs were rarely addressed on television (data from a two season viewing period 1970-71, 1971-72), approximately one in every nine episodes. Most of these shows dealt with heroin and portrayed unpleasant repercussions from abusing drugs. Winick and Winick emphasized three themes in the drug-related programming: prosecuting the pushers, expressing clear disapproval of the pushers and finding help for the drug user. The other report, conducted by Hanneman and McEwen, was based on an intense viewing of 101 hours of primetime television over two weeks. Their studies collaborated the rarity of illicit drug use on television and the isolated episodes included unfavorable results. They also found that most of the references were found in cop dramas where there was clearly a good/bad division between the cops and the dealers. The cop drama was used as a vehicle to warn the potential drug user of the consequences awaiting him.

As the focus of America turned towards the Cold War, the attitude towards marijuana continued to relax and the use of cocaine and heroin in America rose dramatically from 1976 through 1980 (National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, NHSDA) (figure 2). When Ronald Reagan was inaugurated in 1981, the Drug War was at one of its weakest points. Cocaine seemed to flow freely into the United States from Latin America sources. There have also been reports documenting various aspects of CIA drug trafficking during this time period as well as drug deals across the street from the White House. America was no longer actively interested in the Drug War. Drug-related stories were experiencing a dip* in news media coverage at the beginning of the 80s but someone had to take notice. The nation’s lethargic attitude inspired a classic anti-drug message, “Just Say No”

In the first massive anti-drug campaign, the first lady, Nancy Reagan, spearheaded a move to eradicate drugs from American youth. Originating in 1984, Nancy’s federal campaign aimed to teach children to just say no to drugs. There was very little substance behind her sweeping crusade. Using television, radio and print to convey this message, the “Just Say No” campaign assaulted the eyes and ears of the American public. People were forced to realize the drug problem, although the facts regarding drug smuggling were left out* of the millions of advertisements that draped the nation. Nancy stated once on Good Morning that her best role is to try to bring public awareness, particularly parental awareness, to the problems of drug abuse [because] understanding what drugs can do to your children, understanding peer pressure and understanding why they turn to drugs is…the first step in solving the problem (www.reaganfoundation.org).”

The initiation of the “Just Say No” campaign coincided with the inception of DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) in 1983. Founded by Los Angeles cops, the program was directed towards fifth and sixth grade students. Drug Awareness was considered another class in their schedule where they were educated on illicit drugs and proper behavior when dealing with drugs and drug dealers. Along with Nancy’s chants of “Just Say No,” the program quickly went national and is still taught in 72% of the school districts nationwide and in 54 other countries.

These campaigns were perpetuated by the current events and their subsequent news coverage in the years to follow. 1986 was marked by incidents such as the tragic death of Len Bias, a forward on the University of Maryland’s basketball team. Traces of cocaine were found in his bloodstream, which led to a lengthy publicized trial ending in the prosecution of three people who admitted to consuming drugs with him that evening. It was also during this time that adaptation of cocaine known as “crack” began to invade America’s ghetto communities. Drug-related news stories reached a peak of 6% of media coverage in August of 1986. The Anti-Drug Abuse Act reinstated the “War on Drugs” and pushed this percentage higher. This number was a massive increase from the early 80s, when drug-related stories accounted for about 1% of media coverage (Merriam 1989).

Although everything was timed appropriately, the messages behind the two main initiatives was lacking in substance. Neither group was informing children why they needed to reject drugs. There was nothing about what drugs did to the body and mind. Children were inundated with scare tactics; if they consumed drugs, they would be led down a moral sewer and would end up dead or in jail. Because of this drastic neglect regarding the downward spiral of drug use itself, may often forgot what they were fighting in the first place. America needed a hip new slogan that would embody the negative aspects of drug usage. Partnership for a Drug-Free America (a coalition of networks who use the power of advertising through mass media to prevent drug abuse) introduced “This is your Brain on Drugs” as a campaign in 1987. A quick catchy slogan accompanied by the image of an egg frying in a pan somewhat depicted the effects of drugs on a person’s brain. The situation is reinforced by the final words, “Any questios?” This commercial is considered one of the most influential ads of all time, a memory that has remained with many people through their teenage years. The situation itself is a scare tactic, depending on the desire of its audience to not want a fried brain. The commercial transferred well to radio and print, each recalling the images and the situation from the television spot. Being spoofed repeatedly to great success demonstrates the longevity of these campaigns.

Although these campaigns had some effect, drug use among American teens continued to rise steadily. It was evident that these slogans were not answering the greater problem. The anti-drug movement turned to the parents. In the early nineties, President Clinton battled slanderous comments towards his history with marijuana. Diverting the negative attention with the infamous “I didn’t inhale” line, he personified the problems that many parents of teenagers were facing at the time. These parents were the definitive Baby Boomers who grew up into Hippies and tried drugs in their youth. Parents found themselves at a hypocritical junction: wanting to keep their children off of drugs (emphasized by the media and government) versus their history with (and often enjoying) drugs. This situation was epitomized by a commercial in the late 80s where a father walks in on his son with drugs and demands to know where he learned such things. The son replies loudly, “I learned it from watching you, Dad! I learned it from watching you dad!” Parental intervention was the direction of anti-drug campaigns at the time. “Talk to your kids about drugs” became popular, and books were sold online on ways to talk to children regarding this sensitive subject.

Commercials diverged into two demographics (which now has become several) parents/caregivers and adolescents. The ads directed towards adults pleaded with them to be aware of their children’s friends and extracurricular activities as well as discussing the dangers of drug use. Advertisements aimed at adolescents approached their audience with famous people, cartoon characters, and the reliable scare tactic. One of my favorite commercials from my youth featured the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They propose a situation where an older boy confronts a young boy in his school and offers him “pot, you know, marijuana.” The Turtles then pause the scene and ask what the young boy should do. The following is the dialogue from the second half of the scene and the end of the commercial:

Young Boy: No thanks.
Older Boy: C’mon. What’s the matter, are you a chicken? Buck! Buck! Bu-caw!
Young Boy: I’m not a chicken! You’re a turkey! (slams locker and runs away leaving the Older Boy behind)
Turtles: That’s right, drug dealers are dorks. Don’t even talk to them. COWABUNGA!!

Another commercial from the early nineties featured Penny, a character from Pee Wee’s Playhouse, a popular children’s television show at the time. She was a claymation character with pennies for eyes. The transcript of that commercial is as follows:

Saturdays are good.
Hamsters are good.
Birthday parties are real good.
Drugs are bad. I don’t do drugs.

Anti-drug commercials still follow these basic themes and later commercials seem to be building off of the origin ideas. The classic “Brain on Drugs” spot has been updated for heroin, where the egg never makes it to the frying pan. The person in the ad is now a slim attractive young woman (instead of the early thirty-something father-figure in the original) who defines the egg as your brain. “This is your brain on heroin (she smashes the egg with the frying pan). This is how your body feels after heroin (shows the smashed egg under the pan). This is what heroin does to your family (destroys the dishes with the pan). And your friends… ” After she has destroyed the entire kitchen, she stops, looks at the camera and asks, “Any questions?”

As the nineties progressed, “raves” became more popular. All night parties where teenagers would gather to dance (often to various types of electronica), with the raves came a new drug, Ecstasy. It hit the rave scene and proliferated en masse. Originally perceived as harmless, teens were taking it every weekend and dancing until dawn. The acceptance of ecstasy into the mainstream opened the door for other “designer drugs.” These are hallucinogens produced synthetically in a lab. They are often not scheduled and are therefore legal to make and consume. The anti-drug community did not know how to address this. Suddenly, there were children dying from overdoses caused by drugs whose effects were unknown to general medicine. A massive drug consuming culture that was occuring mostly in the suburbs overshadowed marijuana as a harmful drug. The focus of anti-drug campaigns changed accordingly. Although marijuana was still considered a gateway drug, the posters and commercials addressed ecstasy as a killer of youth. The problem behind this campaign was that no one knew exactly how ecstasy affected your brain and body. The campaigns were forced to become more scientific, described the neurological deficits that can be caused by long-term ecstasy consumption.

This education of the public regarding the effect of drugs on the body has long been required. Now, with the mass usage of the Internet, consumers desire and deserve to know what they are being prohibited from. Nancy’s “Just Say No” campaign would have never worked today because it is too simple. It refuses to acknowledge the physical repercussions of drug abuse and demands the viewer behave on blind faith. DARE has been proven a failure since its inception. Denounced by many and statistically proven to not impact children later in life, when they are more likely to do drugs, DARE has been forced to reevaluate its strategy and goals. In a study featured in The Detroit News, it was shown that “teens in districts that offered DARE in elementary school were no less likely to try drugs and alcohol than teens from districts without DARE.” One girl in the article states, “It didn’t have anything to do with the decisions I made… They tell you it’s all about peer pressure. That’s not how kids make their choices. You do it because you want to, not because anybody is telling you to.” This comment is addressed in another stream of ads, which shows teenagers saying no to their friends who offer them drugs without negative consequences. The drug users do not push the issue; rather the adolescent walks away with his dignity and clean bloodstream.

Not only are we subjected to anti-drug messages in the form of Public Service Announcements (PSA) but also they are just as popular in the content of the shows that we watch. Many shows now try to tackle with drugs from either a responsible or comedic point of view. Popular primetime shows such as The Simpsons, South Park and That 70’s Show use marijuana consumption as a humor vehicle while cop shows continue to depict the negative aspects of drug usage through on the street and court room dramas. Most recently, there was a major scandal broken regarding America’s Drug Czar at the time, Barry McCaffrey and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). It is reported that he paid the major networks to include anti-drug messages in their programming. The deal was a compromise to Congress’ demand that the networks give a 2-for-1 deal to anti-drug commercials. Instead, the networks agreed to air anti-drug messages in the shows themselves, thereby selling extra time to corporations that was not needed for PSAs. Legal questions are raised with respect to Payola laws originating from the 1950s (musicians would pay DJs to play certain songs) require broadcasters to reveal any financial considerations, direct or indirect, that yield on-air exposure (salon.com). The ONDCP paid approximately $40 million to each of the six major networks to alter scripts to popular television shows such as ER, Seventh Heaven and the Drew Carey Show.
When the article was printed, hundreds of media and drug policy critics descended on McCaffrey. The White House vehemently denied any accusations of censorship but the truth remains that if a script that was submitted to the ONDCP was lacking in the proper anti-drug message, the network would be forced to dedicate a time slot to a free PSA instead of a paying commercial. One incident that is emphasized repeatedly involved the WB’s program, Smart Guy. Although the writers included a anti-alcohol message, the ONDCP did not feel that it was not explicit enough to warrant a waiver so they replied with potential alterations to make the script worthy of the title “anti-drug message.” The original script features TJ (the main character: a 10-year-old whiz kid in high school) at a kid only party where he is convinced to drink and proceeds to get very drunk. TJ then makes a fool of himself in front of his crush and then lies to his father the next day while battling a hangover. At first the network refused to produce the program, concerned with the images of a child drinking. Seasons later, the producers decided to air that episode but not until it was adapted to comply with the ideals that the ONDCP had in mind. Attention in the storyline was drawn away from TJ’s fumble with his crush and focused on the parents’ disapproval and TJ’s guilt of betraying his parents. In order to properly comply with the desired effects of the ONDCP, some of the writers were in constant contact with government officials. One writer expressed in the article that “the scenes in which T.J. is counseled by his father were crafted with the government consultants’ input” (salon.com).

Although there has been much attention placed on the method by which anti-drug messages are being slipped into primetime television but the truth remains that illicit drugs are mentioned very rarely in many primetime sitcoms and dramas that are popular with teens. In January 2000, a report entitled, “Substance Abuse in Popular Television was released. Funded by the ONDCP, the authors watched 42 different shows for four consecutive episodes and documented their results. The sample shows were selected from the 20 most popular shows for teens and adults as well as different minority groups. The researchers found that although many programs contained messages about alcohol and tobacco, a small percentage of shows portrayed illicit drug use. Approximately 20% of the shows had references to illicit drugs (illicit drug use only appeared in six episodes, a total of 3% of all data) and 41% of these shows included at least one negative consequence regarding illicit drugs. However, it was very rare for a main character on the show to use illicit drugs (2%). In conclusion, the report stated:

Illicit drugs were infrequently mentioned and rarely shown in prime time television. In the few episodes that portrayed illicit drug use, nearly all showed negative consequences. Typically, major characters were not shown using illicit drugs or communicating pro-use statements. However, a number of humorous references to illicit drugs occurred (Christenson et al 2000).

Most recently, the government has released a new series of anti-drug commercials that rely on the nation’s fear of terrorists as a scare tactic. On February 4, 2002, the ONDCP aired several ads during the nationally televised Super Bowl connecting drug money to terrorists. One ad entitled “I Helped” features everyday young Americans admitting to acts of terrorism such as, “I helped murder families in Columbia… I help kids learn how to kill… I helped a bomber get a fake passport.” These quotes are interpolated with reasons such as “My life, my body,” and “I was just having fun… all the kids do it,” which are standard responses to why teens consume drugs. The final title screen pronounces: “Drug money supports terrorists, if you buy drugs, you might too.” And adaptation of this commercial was reproduced in hundreds of papers around the country featuring the face of a young American with blurbs such as:

Last weekend, I washed my car,
hung out with a few friends
and help murder a family in Columbia.

C’mon, it was a party.

*Drug money helps support terror. Buy drugs and you could be supporting it too*

Another commercial entitled “AK-47” parallels the popular MasterCard “priceless” advertisements by listing the cost of certain items including computer ($1200), box cutters ($2), plastic explosives ($1200), AK-47 ($250) and so on. The final title screen pronounces: “Where do terrorists get their money… if you buy drugs, some of it might come from you.” The idea being that casual drug users are supporting terrorism. These ads are available through the ONDCP website along with transcripts of the commercials and facts pertaining to each of the quotes. Oddly enough, the “facts” page lists a series of terrorist acts that relate to each comment but none of them mention how drug money or drug smuggling is involved in these acts.

These commercials were met with great criticism after their release. College kids all over the country immediately posted angry commentary on millions of message boards and articles popped up all over the web describing their outage at the ad campaign. Aside from the commercial’s desperate correlation between casual drug users and massive Afghani terrorist drug lords, many were concerned with the Bush administration using the Drug War to “push a broad and moralistic political agenda while overlooking community-based approaches to drug abuse (salon.com).” Bush appointed a new drug czar in May of 2001, John Walters. After September 11, the Drug War faded from the national agenda but with this new campaign, Walters tries to combine morals, nationalism and guilt into a cohesive anti-drug message that is supposed to dissuade teens from trying drugs by correlating drug-users with the nation’s biggest enemy, terrorists. Not once do the ads mention what drugs are coming out of the Middle East, which include heroin, hashish and opium. Chances are high that Johnny Potsmoker portrayed in these advertisements does not kill judges by taking a couple of hits off of a joint at a party. This blurring of details is vital to the effect of the commercials.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
This entry was posted in Early Work in Media Studies, Media Effects, Research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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