Making America "Drug Free," One Ad at a Time

It's Okay To PassIt's 4:20 in the afternoon and a teen-something boy toting a joint finds a group of his Gap-clad, bandana head-wrapped peers sitting in a suburban garage. He passes his offerings to the left as the rest discuss whether they'd eat a maggot-filled pie or go to school naked. The camera follows the joint around the circle as it passes from hand to hand, focusing on the well-adjusted, self-assured expression of each kid.

The joint remains unlit. Not one of them takes a puff.

"Naked!" Everyone yells in agreement, while the text on the screen reads "It's Okay to Pass." Blaring teen rock music by Third Eye Blind closes the scene, and the joint lands back in the original boy's lap.

"The ONDCP also reported in March that it has so far achieved its goal of reaching 90 percent of the target audiences (youth, teens, and parents) with four to seven anti-drug messages a week, through paid ads."
It's a clever scenario, but is it realistic? High school Sophomore Anna Blake thinks so. "I think it's a real situation and it's effective in reaching out to young people because it's really relaxed -- it's not forced," she said. "They don't say it's about not smoking weed until the very end, which I thought was good because it grabbed me and made me think," she continued.

The sleek commercial is only one of many sponsored by The Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA) and The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) since 1998. It may not seem like a huge change from more conservative anti-drug ads, but in its attempt to modernize the "Just Say No" dogma of the 1980s by focusing on kids and communication instead of preaching with propaganda, it might be a good sign. In a subtle way, the commercial acknowledges that even if you are a kid who "passes," you may still be hanging out with those who don't. In the ad, no one acts shocked to see the pot, nor do they ostracize the kid who brought it.

This suggests a small but important change in the national approach to drug education. It makes sense, considering that even the 18-year-old DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) [check out "Just Say No To D.A.R.E." on Salon.com] program has finally acknowledged its whopping failures, and has updated its curriculum this year from an approach based on telling kids what not to do, to one that stresses communication.


"Changes" - by Sweet Talk Productions
"Jump Off"
"How to Start Smoking" - by WDHS



Together, these recharged weapons are the government's Batman and Robin of a smarter, more fashionable war on drugs for the 21st century, equipped with branding and repetitive mass media tactics.

"I think media is an awesome way to reach kids," said Ernesto Pepito, 20, who works with a San Francisco organization designed to help youth gain work experience and find positive outlets after school. "It's about youth [development], and that's exactly what the whole campaign is doing -- getting kids to see themselves."

The commercials are targeting not only kids, but parents as well. Print ads and billboards feature children with messages written on their arms or foreheads like, "Stay involved in my life." One commercial shows a series of children demanding that their parents do a better job of knowing where their kids are and who they are hanging out with.

The glossy images come wrapped up in an expensive package, guaranteed to produce visible results, partly due to the billion-dollar price tag, according to government drug officials.

















In January 1998, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) began the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a five-year billion-dollar effort. That campaign, now a nationwide effort, seeks to reduce drug use through coordinated efforts to educate and enable America's youth to reject illegal drugs. The specific goals of the Media Campaign are:


To educate and enable youth to reject illegal drugs, especially marijuana and inhalants. To convince occasional users of these and other drugs to stop using them. To enhance adult perceptions of the harm associated with adolescent use of marijuana and inhalants. To emphasize to parents and other influential adults that their actions can make a critical difference in helping prevent youth drug use.


The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is the largest and most comprehensive anti-drug media campaign ever undertaken by the federal government. The campaign, which has now entered Phase III, comprises more than 80 different anti-drug messages in a variety of media, from Internet banner ads to television ads to radio ads and book covers. In Phase III, ONDCP and its partners, such as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, will continue to work to sustain long-term anti-drug attitudes.


The government commissioned Ogilvy & Mather, one of the largest and most respected advertising companies in the world, to direct the media campaign.



"What sets this effort apart from other anti-drug campaigns is paid media exposure, which guarantees the precise placement of the right message in the right media to reach the right target audience consistently over time," stated Richard D. Bonnette, president & CEO of PDFA in a press release in January. Research and execution, Bonnette added, are keys to making advertising work.

ONDCP Deputy Director Donald Vereen, who attributes the campaign's approach to "the undisputed influence of popular culture on attitude formation," obviously didn't realize the strategy is also its major enemy. Pop culture, especially half-hour television shows, movie trailers and prescription drug commercials, consistently contradicts the anti-drug messages.

While the ONDCP tells kids to stay away from drugs, Hollywood uses television to market films like "Blow," which glamorizes drug use and crowns Johnny Depp the King of Cool in teen's eyes.

While the ONDCP tells kids to stay away from drugs, every Tuesday, the characters of "That 70s Show" ritually smoke weed in their parents' basement. The scene has become a staple in each week's script and ironically shares similar choreography, cinematography and dialogue of the "It's OK to Pass" commercial.

"Kids think [the characters] look so cool -- like the way someone smokes a cigarette in a movie, he's a hero and looks good doing it," said Vilen Gabrielyan, 17, a junior in San Francisco.

While the ONDCP tells kids to stay away from illegal drugs, pharmaceutical companies have increased their visibility on television, and are telling parents to buy the legal ones, despite lengthy lists of side effects.

"Those who use Meridia may become dependent," admits one commercial for diet pills. About 2.6 million people in the U.S. use prescription drugs for "non-medical reasons" -- more than the estimated number of users of heroin, crack and cocaine, according to surveys by the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The opposing media images not only confuse young people in making decisions about what is cool and what is not, but they also create a dichotomy of good drugs and bad drugs. In reality, both categories list numerous side effects, including ADDICTION. The only difference is that good drugs are wrapped up in FDA-approved labels and are pushed by doctors instead of dealers; the bad drugs are uncontrolled by the government, and people who use them just to "feel good" are labeled as social misfits.

In an article by Diana Diaz in Selfhelp Magazine, she writes: "First, prescription drugs are as dangerous if not more so than street drugs. Just because it is legal and doctors prescribed it, does not mean that the medication is not dangerous, let alone deadly."

Sending out mixed messages about drugs is not a new thing for the U.S. government. In 1920, the U.S. Department of Agriculture published a pamphlet urging Americans to grow cannabis (marijuana) as a profitable undertaking. Fifty years later, in response to kids using marijuana to rebel against government establishment, the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 classified marijuana, along with heroin and LSD, as a Schedule I drug, i.e., having the relatively highest abuse potential and no accepted medical use.

Mixed messages or not, the American Journal of Public Health reported that marijuana use has decreased as a result of the media campaign. The ONDCP also reported in March that it has so far achieved its goal of reaching 90 percent of the target audiences (youth, teens, and parents) with four to seven anti-drug messages a week, through paid ads. (Phase II was evaluated using national school-based surveys of more than 45,000 youth in the fourth through twelfth grades and a national telephone survey of about 8,500 parents.)

It also claims there was a substantial increase in the percentage of youth who agreed that the ads made them stay away from drugs (from 61% to 69%). And the percentage of youth reporting they learned a lot about the dangers of drugs from TV commercials increased from 44 to 52 percent.

"While the The Office of National Drug Control Policy tells kids to stay away from drugs, every Tuesday, the characters of "That 70s Show" ritually smoke weed in their parents' basement. The scene has become a staple in each week's script and ironically shares similar choreography, cinematography and dialogue of the "It's OK to Pass" commercial."
The fabulous success rates haven't changed the skeptical perspectives of some youth and youth counselors.

Tatiana Levexier, 12, said she has seen the series of anti-drug commercials where real kids (not actors) declare hobbies and interests as their "anti-drug." If she had to choose, she says she sees dancing as her anti-drug. But if anything, she thinks she wouldn't try drugs because of the things she's seen on the streets.

"I would pass because I don't want my life to get messed up," she said. "I don't know whose mouth's been on there! And I hear about people getting addicted and dying trying to hustle just to get dope. I see people holding signs [that say] 'Will Work for Food,' when they really need money for drinking or smoking."

The seventh-grader added that neither of her parents drink or smoke, and that she tries to keep busy instead of hanging on street corners like some of the kids she knows from school.

"I hate the fact that our tax dollars go to fighting drugs because I don't believe it's anyone else's business," said Simon Holt, 17, a junior at Ayer High School in the suburbs of Boston. "It's a waste of money. I've never smoked, done drugs, and I hate alcohol -- my parents raised me well, to be responsible. All those ads and school programs to keep us off of drugs would have done nothing for me had my parents not influenced me."

Marty Fleischman, a clinical supervisor of adolescent treatment at Camp Recovery Centers in the Bay Area, said the government gets kudos from adult taxpayers for fighting the good fight against drug abuse, even when commercial outreach cannot show tangible results.

"Historically these things [media campaigns] haven't been successful," he said. "It's easy for the federal government to take a bunch of tax money and spend it on this. But it could spend more on treatment. Most kids don't use drugs because they're happy and bursting with energy -- they feel good about themselves."

Despite his criticism, Fleischman added that he thought the new campaign's focus on showing kids' points of view instead of preaching at them is important to fixing the mistakes of campaigns in the past.

"All information tends to increase awareness, and that in and of itself is good," he said. "The ads may get some families talking and have some positive effects in that way. Those are the kinds of small steps that lead people to make better decisions."

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