Four Hilariously Ineffective Anti-Drug PSAs

Vol. 13 No. 8

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Children are smarter and more intuitive than many adults give them credit for. They know when they’re being sold to, no matter the window dressing on it. Therefore, advertising campaigns to help young people avoid addictive substances have occasionally… shot wide of the mark. This issue, enjoy a countdown of some of the most hilariously incompetent efforts to educate our children on the dangers of drugs.

4. “Reefer Madness”

This hour-long informational flick from the 1930s features an ominously voiced warning that marijuana leads to “debauchery, violence, murder, suicide, and the ultimate end of the marijuana addict – hopeless insanity.” The movie only goes downhill from there in exaggerated claims. While sustained use of pot can affect growing teens' minds just as they’re solidifying into their adult states, “hopeless insanity” has never been determined to be a side effect of cannabis use.

While the PSA is practically an antique, it certainly goes a long way to showing why current marijuana laws are so strict: This is the type of information that was spread about the products before people had regular access to search engines.

3. “Stoner Sloth”

Modern public service announcements have become more accurate with their claims, like Australia’s NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet “Stoner Sloth” campaign, featuring “stoned” students who had turned into sloths due to their drug use. Unfortunately, the campaign shares its name with a store for marijuana products, potentially promotes underage drinking with its presentation of teens with red Solo cups as an alternative to pot use, and has inspired myriad parodies.

In fact, the country’s National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre—the organization nominally responsible for marijuana awareness and prevention—distanced itself from the ads. In a public statement, the Centre counseled the NSW to be “aware that teenagers are intelligent and have access to a lot of information, so campaign approaches should respect them and give them credit by avoiding hyperbole.”

2. “This Is Your Brain on Drugs”

This PSA is a classic example of a “scare tactic” approach to drugs. It, too, has been parodied to death, which never helped anything’s reputation. The man is scarily condescending, which discourages viewer empathy. (“You’re an idiot, so I’ll break this down simply,” the man seems to convey to his young viewers.) But the greatest problem with this PSA is that it’s too vague in its attempt to be impactful—while inviting further analysis with the parting shot, “Any questions?”

Yes, actually—quite a few. When the actor mentions “drugs,” which drugs is he referring to? Nicotine in cigarettes? Caffeine in a teacher’s coffee? Heroin? Marijuana? And then there’s the egg that represents a user’s brain. The PSA implies that brain deterioration is instant, given the one-time slam of the pan. But is it really instant, or just the effect of cumulative doses? The instant destruction of the egg-brain contradicts what students see with their drug using friends, which decreases their trust in the overarching message of “drugs are bad.”

(It’s worth noting that the Partnership for a Drug Free America ran an updated version of this PSA that specifies that the drug in question is heroin, and goes on to demonstrate the ramifications on a user’s life beyond personal health that’s fairly easily backed with research commonly available today.)

1. “I’m not chicken—you’re a turkey!”

This PSA targeted a younger audience through the use of the then-popular children’s television show, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While the PSA was formatted like the show’s “after credits” lessons for viewers, it seemingly fails to resonate with a genuine viewer.

First of all, children know what their “role” should be in those sorts of shows—as Sesame Street and later children’s programming have proven. They don’t need a demonstration of a clearly-fake child audience to understand that they should be responding to the drawn characters on-screen.

Then, there’s that zinger: “I’m not a chicken—you’re a turkey!” I’m sure many a student used that to a bully or a would-be drug dealer to great purpose.

But on a serious note, the PSA shouldn’t be encouraging a viewer to aggravate an already tense situation with a put-down. The better tactic would be to simply refuse, and then find a trusted adult to handle the situation—a solution which the ad seems to seemingly mock by having the “get a teacher” response as a leadup to a “get a pizza” punchline.

Therefore, this PSA fails because it not only doesn’t tell kids why the recommended actions are appropriate—trusting that their faith in cartoon characters will reinforce the lesson without logic—it also promotes an incorrect response to the presented situation.

While these ads are clearly ineffective ways to reach an at-risk audience to discourage the use of illicit substances, there are programs that can encourage students to avoid such behavior. Next issue, we’ll offer up effective strategies that your school can use to keep your campus drug-free.

Additional ISM resources:
The Source for Business Managers Vol. 13 No. 5 Drug Testing: The Basics
The Source for School Heads Vol. 12 No. 10 Prescription Drug Abuse Is (Still) a Problem in Private Schools

Additional ISM resources for Gold Consortium members:
I&P Vol. 29 No. 6 Random Drug Testing Policies for Students

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