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TV's Dumbest Anti-Drug Ads

For 40 years, Americans have been barraged with with thousands of ads about the dangers of drugs and alcohol. We dug up a few of the most memorable—and the most bizarre.

  • This is Your Brain on Drugs (1987 and 1998)

    An anti-narcotics campaign by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, this televised commercial showed a stern-looking gentleman demonstrating the terrible effects of narcotics on the brain by comparing it to a fried egg—a commercial so popular that it was referenced by Johnny Depp’s character in Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare and firmly earned its place in pop culture history. The revamped version in 1998 featured the same “fried egg brain” but with an actress, Rachel Leigh Cook, smashing up the kitchen with a frying pan as a metaphor for the destructive effects of heroin on the brain. Was it effective? Well, it certainly invoked a few sniggers, but it’s anybody’s guess if people really bought into the notion that a line of blow instantly could turn your brain into a sizzling sunny-side up.

  • Above the Influence (Present)

    Above The Influence has certainly provoked the ire of stoners with its predominantly anti-marijuana ads. From a talking dog to “I let people draw on me” commercial to stoners at a drive-thru trundling over a small child on a pink tricycle, the Office of National Drug Control’s program is predominantly geared towards teens (their more meth-based campaign is aimed at young adults). The scare tactic ads run concurrently with more positive commercials promoting individuality—an effort that seems to be working, if a new study released by Ohio University in 2011 is correct. “The campaign appears to be successful because it taps into the desire by teenagers to be independent and self-sufficient,” concludes Michael Slater, principal investigator and Professor of Communications in the study. The stoners might debate that.

  • I learned it by watching you! (1987)

    A concerned father confronts his moody, teenaged son with a box of drug paraphernalia and demands to know how he got into the drug scene. “I learned it by watching you!” the son yells back as a narrator dolefully intones, “Parents who use drugs have children who use drugs.” For some reason, this PSA by Partnership for a Drug-Free America became an underground classic, bestowing upon America a catchphrase that’s now part of the lexicon—perhaps because we were all intrigued by what was in the box, perhaps because it was so reminiscent of our own teenage years, or perhaps because it put the blame back on Mom and Dad. It’s been parodied a bunch of times, most recently in Scrubs. Was it effective? Hell, no. But it gave everyone a good laugh.

  • I miss my lung, Bob (1999)

    Traditionally a major venue of cigarette advertising, anti-smoking billboards popped off after the major tobacco settlement of 1999. One of the most memorable was a parody of the Marlboro Man advertisements—two cowboys riding off into the sunset, accompanied by the slogan, “I miss my lung Bob.” But cigarette smoking stood strong against these billboards, and there were reports testifying to the ineffectiveness of such campaigns. In later years, the anti-smoking campaign has had to turn to hard-core gore after a 1994 report by the Surgeon General, "Preventing Tobacco Use Among Young People," asserted that “when young people no longer want to smoke, the epidemic itself will die.” The most effective anti smoking campaigns, it’s been found, are those that “scare or disgust.”

  • Pee Wee Herman, The Thrill Can Kill (1992)

    The 1980’s “Just Say No” campaign meant that all the stops were pulled out for the war on drugs—which in turn meant that even Pee Wee Herman was rolled out to appear in a “Don’t Do Crack” television PSA. This was, of course, right after the porn scandal and it’s just possible that the arrest is what led to the fun-loving jokester appearing in this truly bizarre PSA. Pee Wee holds up real crack and tell us “It’s not just wrong—it could be dead wrong” with a pulsing techno heartbeat in the background. The problem, as one commentator acutely notes, is that Pee Wee Herman’s target audience was then pre-teen kids who’d probably never even heard of crack, while those smoking it—older teens and young adults—didn’t give a toss about what Pee Wee thought. He was the dude who’d been caught jerking off in a adult movie theater. No wonder we lost the war on drugs.

  • “Don’t dishonor (African Americans) by becoming a slave to cocaine, heroin and crack” (1989)

    This anti-drug PSA is breathtakingly inept and racist by today’s current politically correct standards—and we can’t help but think it probably wasn’t all that acceptable back in 1989 either. The action: Africans are shackled and shipped to slavery in America while a voice warns, "Don't dishonor them by becoming a slave to heroin, cocaine, and crack. Drug abuse is the new slavery." But what did black people do after being released from the shackles of slavery? They went back to their native roots, banged some bongos and shot up heroin. Nice one, Partnership for a Drug Free America. Not.

  • Adbusters: “Absolut End,” “Absolut AA.” “Absolut Hangover,” “Absolut Impotence” (1994)

    The Canadian organization Adbusters is well known for their spoof ads that parody popular advertising campaigns. And when they targeted Absolut Vodka with ads called Absolut Nonsense, Absolut Impotence and Absolut Silence in 1994, the Swedish vodka company threatened to sue. Adbusters responded by putting together a press release about how a major vodka company was coming after a little non-profit organization and The Washington Post and LA Times picked up on the story. The result? Absolut dropped the case. Eighteen years later, Adbusters have taken on giants such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds and Calvin Klein—and, in the process, become feared adversaries. Adbusters founder Kalle Lasn credits much of their success to a major shift in global consciousness around the time of the World Trade Organization (WTO) riots in Seattle in 1999. "Two years ago, around the time of the battle in Seattle, suddenly activism became cool again," he says in an interview with Freedom Run. "Wearing a black shirt and smashing a window at a protest became really cool. And I think that somehow saved us." (The small print for “Absolut End” reads: “Nearly 50% of automobile fatalities are linked to alcohol. 10% of North Americans are alcoholics. A teenager sees 100,000 alcohol ads before reaching the legal drinking age.”)

  • Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk (1979)

    In 1983, the Drunk Driving Prevention campaign launched a campaign with the tagline "Drinking & Driving Can Kill A Friendship" (with Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” as the theme song)—an ad designed to reach 16-24 year-olds, who accounted for 42% of all fatal alcohol-related car crashes. This Star Wars ad preceded it by four years, and was too wonderfully weird and wacky not to include. Also, when, in the 90’s, the PSA’s started using the tagline “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” again—which originated in the Star Wars ad—the campaign was instrumental in achieving a 10% decrease in alcohol-related fatalities between 1990 and 1991. The tagline went on to become the most recognized anti-drinking and driving slogan in America.

  • America’s Drug Habit Funds Terrorism and Terrorists (2002)

    Shortly after 9/11, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy launched a pricey taxpayer-funded anti-drug campaign informing the unsuspecting public that by buying drugs, they’re funding terrorists “whether you're shooting heroin, snorting cocaine, taking Ecstasy or sharing a joint in your friend's back yard.” Bush even declared, "If you quit drugs, you join the fight against terror in America.” In this television commercial, a creepy little ghost girl appears in a woman's office and tells her, "You killed me…there was a bomb...you bought drugs...gave them money." The White House drug czar killed the campaign after it was widely mocked, and studies showed the ads actually encouraged pro-drug beliefs among teens.

  • Drug Drugs Drugs (1990)

    Which are good and which are bad? Surely the last thing you should be aiming for when trying to promote the “drugs are bad” message is a catchy jingle sung by a chorus of happy kids. Yet this Canadian PSA does exactly that—unsurprisingly, provoking a host of modified versions across the Internet. Ostensibly to get across the difference between prescribed medication and illegal narcotics, all this PSA seemed to achieve is to show how nice Canadians seem to be compared to Americans. As one American blogger succinctly phrased it, “We never saw this ad growing up but if we had, it would have made us want to move to Canada.” Of course, American PSA’s weren’t without their utterly ineffective jingles, either. The famed Meth Girl PSA made meth-amphetamine seem positively useful if you happened to have a dirty apartment, while the upbeat, cheerful lyrics were again extremely catchy: “Oh Meth, mmmm Meth. I don't sleep and I don't eat, but I've got the cleanest house on this street.” Recently, hard hitting anti-meth commercials on TV and in print (particularly by the Montana Meth Project) directed by greats like Darren Aronofsky concentrate on getting across an entirely different message. (Two years after launching the Meth Project in Montana, adult meth use had declined by 72% and meth-related crime had decreased 62%.) Final score: hard hitting: 10, jingles: 0.

    British-born author, screenwriter, journalist and regular Fix contributor Ruth Fowler has written for The Village VoiceThe GuardianThe Huffington PostThe New York Post and The Observer. Her memoir, No Man's Land, which documented her pre-sobriety experiences as a stripper in Manhattan, was published by Viking in 2008. She also wrote about why doctors can't deal with addicted patients and nursing your way back to health, among many other topics.

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By Ruth Fowler 05/20/11

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