Why Activists Think the Super Bowl’s Heroin PSA is Stigmatizing

By Zachary Siegel 02/08/16

Instead of prompting a conversation or resolution about a major epidemic, the controversial ad is promoting fear and stigma. 

Why Activists Think the Super Bowl’s Heroin PSA is Stigmatizing

During Super Bowl 50, a heroin PSA called “All American Girl,” produced by the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA), ran on St. Louis airtime. The PSA caused a major stir with grassroots activists across the country, who felt resoundingly that the ad was hand-wringing, the same old fearful messages which, to no avail, have been chanted for decades.

The ad opens with a raccoon-eyed young woman cooking up a shot. The hashtag “#heroin” flashes, which cuts to a young cheerleader falling out of step. We then witness the metamorphosis from pom-poms to heroin, which a song in the background says began with “a couple pills on a little dare.” The cheerleader begins to literally throw her life away: friends, schoolbooks, her dog and iPhone. Oddly, the iPhone is the very device on which she likely orders her heroin—might want to hang onto that, actually. At 40 seconds in, the cheerleader looks pale and waify, as though she stepped out of a 1990s Nirvana concert time machine.  

 A 2011 meta-analysis entitled, “The effectiveness of anti-illicit-drug public-service announcements” found these types of PSAs are simply not effective. So why make them? To bring awareness, according to NCADA. 

“Why spend this kind of money to make this ineffective and stigmatizing commercial? One that does nothing but promote fear and ignorance. Then again, it does accomplish one thing: It will scare the hell out of the parents,” said Dr. Sam Snodgrass, who is on the advisory board of Broken No More, a group that provides support for families who have lost a loved one to drug use. 

Those impacted by heroin use found the messaging produced by NCADA to be in poor taste. “The feedback from the families who viewed the segment expressed serious concerns that the piece will have a detrimental impact on impressionable teens who are telling us loud and clear that ‘just say no’ doesn't work,” Carol Katz Beyer, co-founder of Families for Sensible Drug Policy, told The Fix. Beyer was likely referencing the end of the PSA, which cuts to a voiceover of a man saying, “Pick up heroin, and you’ll throw away everything you love.” 

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) wrote in 2015, “Scare tactics—dramatized messaging designed to shock and frighten—were one of the earliest strategies employed to reduce substance use among youth. This strategy, often featuring horror stories, gruesome images, and graphic messaging intended to elicit fear, initially gained popularity as a response to the drug culture of the 1960s. Though used widely since, studies prove scare tactics ineffective in substance abuse prevention." It appears the NCADA did not consult with SAMHSA, given the dramatized, graphic messaging seen in “All American Girl.”

Barry Lessin, president of Families for Sensible Drug Policy, found the PSA to be poorly messaged. “Yes substances can be dangerous,” he said, “heroin is dangerous, but the misguided education messaging has been proven ineffective and can be more dangerous.” 

While many are taking aim at the ads poorly constructed message, Chelsea Laliberte, the executive director of Live4Lali, who lost her younger brother to an accidental overdose in 2008, is slightly more optimistic. “As an activist, honestly, I am pleased that this conversation has become as mainstream as the people who use heroin.”  

Denise Cullen, the executive director from Broken No More, said, "This is just more of the same. The same stigma and beliefs that have led us to where we are. We have more addiction and more deaths than ever before and this is how NCADA tries to accomplish positive change? This ad was meant to scare kids away from heroin use. And all it accomplished was to sensationalize it."

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.