Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.
If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white suburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron advises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis appeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”
In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack. This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine.
Drug warrior PSA’s that spotlight dealers portray such villainous characters in urban districts, and the dealers are frequently young black men. A 1991 anti-crack spot follows a young black dealer swaggering along a playground—with children playing basketball in the background—bragging about his ability to ensnare children into the drug game and hawk his product. “I’m hookin’ them younger everyday. But they don’t have the money you say. But when my customers get on crack they lie, cheat and steal to get more.” In an earlier 1988 neo-noir spot a white young lady menaced by busy city streets, honking horns, and a pushy dealer is coerced into prostitution because she does not have any cash for more crack.
The rare commercial spots that appear to address urban youth convey a very different message than those targeted to suburban youth. In one spot, rappers in a dark alley lit with only police lights and sirens address urban youth directly as drug dealers, repeatedly invoking the word thug. The rhyme warns: “Police are getting serious, you got to get out of this. You want the fancy cars, you want the money, but then you go to jail like all the other dummies.” Perhaps the most troubling advertisement uses an ugly trope often invoked in the 1970s and 1980s by anti-drug crusading Black clergy like Oberia Dempsey, Wendell Foster, and Jesse Jackson: the ad compares drug abuse to slavery. Behind stock tribal music taking us back to the “Dark Continent,” the commercial takes us on a 30-second tutorial of the Atlantic Slave Trade, shamefully chastising possible nonwhite users, “don’t dishonor” your enslaved ancestors “by becoming a slave to heroin, cocaine and crack.” The commercial ends with shots of nodded out black users sleeping on each other on the floor of a small room. The narration closes: “make no mistake, drug abuse is the new slavery.”
Now teens are told that buying marijuana supports terrorism. When youth have rightfully become cynical of the misinformation they are fed in the War on Drugs, they are less likely to respect the popular wisdom that drugs are dangerous. Perhaps this leads to escalating experimentation, and a desire to learn the truth about drugs on their own. As we know, this is entirely more dangerous than educating youth with real knowledge about drugs, drug abuse, and addiction. Rather than continue laughable attempts to scare our youth, arming them with legitimate information might be a step in the right direction. In the midst of a heroin epidemic that recently prompted five million additional dollars to address the problem, we are confronted with the contradictory, problematic nature of how we view drugs. Just as Bruce Willis spoke sternly against crack while hawking liquor to young men, big pharma has packaged serious narcotics as safe, acceptable, and non-habit forming. The gateway drug to our heroin epidemic is indeed a product of big pharma, Oxycontin. Public service announcements in the War on Drugs and direct to consumer marketing of pharmaceuticals are hardly a public service, but rather, a massive disservice to a public seemingly unable to approach alcohol, drugs, and licit pharmaceuticals with clear eyes. I wonder why.