"Shock Value" Anti-Opioid PSAs Debut To Mixed Response

By Paul Gaita 06/12/18

The four videos feature actors portraying individuals who go to extremely violent lengths to enable their opioid dependency.

a still from the anti-opioid PSA

The Trump administration unveiled a quartet of public service announcements (PSAs) as part of its proposed $4.6 billion fight against the opioid epidemic.

The four videos, all purported to be based on true stories, feature actors portraying individuals who go to extreme lengths to enable their opioid dependency: one is seen smashing their hand with a hammer, while another drives a car into a dumpster.

The videos, which began airing on television and and social media on June 7, have drawn not only comparison to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's "This is your brain on drugs" campaign of the 1980s, but also a mixed response from drug policy organizations, with some expressing positive views while others labeled the PSAs as "shock value" or "disingenuous and misleading."

The ad campaign, which is the first stage in an educational effort called "The Truth About Opioids," is a joint effort between the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), the Truth Initiative and the Ad Council.

An array of media partners, including Facebook, Google, YouTube and Amazon have committed to donating airtime and ad space for the PSAs, which according to Ad Council CEO Lisa Sherman, is worth roughly $30 million.

Jim Carroll, deputy director of the ONDCP, was unable to provide an exact figure on how much his agency spent on the campaign, but noted that "very few government dollars" were used, due to the Truth Initiative and Ad Council donating their work and the media partners' donated airtime.

Fred Mensch, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Drug-Free Kids—the Partnership for a Drug-Free America's moniker since 2010—spoke highly of the PSAs, which he described as having "the potential to generate a dialogue between parents and kids on this complex health issue."

But Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, called the spots "the 21st century version of the egg-in-the-frying-pan" commercial, referring to the "your brain on drugs" spot, which was created by Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

"We don't need shock value to fight the overdose crisis," said Raymond. We need empathy, connection and hope for people struggling with opioids. The White House missed an opportunity to combat stigma and stereotypes, portraying people who use opioids as irrational and self-destructive."

Stefanie Jones, director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance, praised the Truth About Opioids web site for providing useful information and resources, but found that the ads "take really extreme cases," she said. "It's all about self-harm to seek opioids, and they also end with the same 'fact' about how dependence can start after five days, and that's just an incredible simplification."

The nature of the PSAs seem to suggest what Trump alluded to in March 2018 about a "large-scale rollout of commercials" intended to raise awareness about opioid dependency.

At the time, Trump said that he had long been in favor of "spending a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad [opioid dependency] is." He added that his administration would make the spots "very, very bad commercials" in which "you scare [audiences] from ending up like the people commercials," and cited similar examples in anti-smoking PSAs.

In May 2018, Axios quoted an unnamed source with an alleged connection to the PSAs, who said that "[Trump] thinks you have to engage and enrage."

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.