Six Anti-Drug Ads We’ll Never Forget

This is your brain on drugs. Whether you remember the 1987 egg-in-frying-pan version of that public service announcement (PSA) or the more melodramatic version from 1998, chances are it’s a refrain that’s pretty easy to recall for anyone older than, say, 25.

Since the 1980s, the Ad Council and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, as well as other organizations, have undertaken the noble cause of trying to prevent adolescent drug use with the help of advertising campaigns on TV and in print, and, more recently, online. Initially the PSAs tended to be more embarrassing than informative, resulting in countless spoofs. In the last decade, though, there have been a few hits (as well as some misses), and research shows that some PSAs might actually be working. With the help of John Yost, a 30-year advertising veteran, I took a look at some of the most unforgettable anti-drug PSAs to ask whether any made it more likely a viewer or reader might think twice before trying a substance.

Campaign: McGruff the Crime Dog “Users are Losers

When it appeared: 1980s

Advertisers: National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council

Message: Don’t do drugs. If you do, you are a loser (naturally, only losers use drugs).

Where it appeared: Commercials and print

What the ad man says: “A campaign that basically says, ‘I know what’s best for you,’ isn’t going to have much of an impact.”

Was it effective? The campaign encourages kids who have questions about drugs to  ask a “parent, teacher or minister.” The flaw is obvious: How many teens do you know who think any of the adults mentioned are arbiters of what is or isn’t cool? “This country has Puritan roots and we have a tendency to scold rather than educate,” says Yost. “It’s not an effective tool in parenting and it’s not an effective tool in advertising, either.” Further, a cartoonish advertisement featuring adults and/or a large dog wearing a trench coat isn’t likely to be taken seriously by any teen, much less change his or her attitude about drugs.

Campaign: “Montana Meth Project

When it appeared: 2005 to present

Advertiser: Meth Project

Message: If you do meth, you’ll behave in scary, immoral and dangerous ways that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Where it appeared: Print and television

What the ad man says: “I can see how this would be an art director’s dream. The images are stylized but also very gritty and graphic.”

Is/was it effective? Yes. Research indicates the Project has been successful in lowering rates of meth use. The campaign is visually striking and as Yost notes, many of the images and videos highlighting the negative effects of meth use come from talented filmmakers, such as Darren Aronofosky, and professional photographers. The campaign succeeds in shocking the viewer and highlighting the disturbing and erratic behavior of meth users. “I don’t know if the campaign is going to make anyone who is already using meth stop,” Yost says, “but it certainly communicates the downsides of meth use to people who haven’t tried it.”

Campaign: “Voicebox

When it appeared: Mid-1990s

Advertiser: California Tobacco Control Program

Message: Smoking is so addictive and bad for you that you won’t be able to stop, even after it destroys your health.

Where it appeared: TV

What the ad man says: “Out of all the ads this is the one that stuck with me the most.”

Was it effective? Research suggests that the California Tobacco Control Program’s campaigns were successful in reducing the number of cigarettes smoked between 1989 and 2008. The best anti-drug PSAs aren’t the ones that tell you what to think, but rather, encourage viewers to come to their own conclusion. This ad made an unforgettable point without being didactic. The woman’s words, “they said smoking wasn’t addictive,” contrast sharply with her actions: needing to smoke through the hole in her throat. “It takes something visually horrifying to really catch your eye in the image-saturated world we live in,” Yost says. Importantly, the accusatory or shaming finger isn’t pointed at the smoker (user), something that makes this ad stand out from many other PSAs.


 Campaign: Above the Influence:  “Only Vermin Do Drugs”

Advertiser: Office of National Drug Control Policy and Partnership for a Drug-Free America

When it appeared: 2011(?)

Message: Drug users are scum or, more precisely, the equivalent of insects and rats.

Where it appeared: Print

What the ad man says: (Yost just laughed when I showed him this ad campaign.)

Was it effective? Can we all agree that cartoons and/or anthropomorphized bugs aren’t going to have much of an impact on teenagers’ attitudes about, well, anything? The implication that adolescents who use drugs are as bad as insects and rodents — invasive, disgusting, hard to get rid of — is likely to be both insulting and ineffective as a tactic.

Campaign: Above the Influence: “No Brainer”  

Advertiser: Partnership for a Drug-Free-America (now the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids)

When it appeared: 2010

Message: Drinking or using drugs will cause you to do stupid, dangerous things.

Where it appeared: TV

What the ad man says: “There’s nothing striking about the ad, nothing that’s going to make you remember it.”

Was it effective?  This ad has a promising start, showing some real possible consequences of drug and alcohol abuse: A teen has driven home drunk from a party and crashed his mother’s car. When the kid’s friend appears, proclaiming to have what the teenager “left at the party last night,” the viewer wonders what it will be. Drugs? Booze? No, it’s a brain. The kid who drove home drunk left his brain at the party — that’s why he drove drunk. It’s not hard to envision every teenager in America rolling their eyes at this ad. The Biology class brain replica doesn’t leave the viewer with the kind of shock that might make this reveal memorable either. (For an example of a very graphic PSA from New Zealand using a real brain, click here. Just be warned this ad may be disturbing.)


Campaign: “Tips from Former Smokers

Advertiser: Arnold Worldwide Global Creative and Advertising Agency and the Centers for Disease Control

When it appeared: 2012

Message: A raw look at the real health problems of smokers

Where it appeared: TV, print

What the ad man says: “I think it takes something this strong to break through all of these other cues and associations promoted by Big Tobacco for years.”

Was it effective? This campaign achieves the difficult task of showing the often tragic health consequences faced by long-term smokers without being exploitative or offensive (something the Montana Meth Project has arguably fallen prey to with some of their images). This is achieved by humanizing the people depicted, showing them talking about their daily routines and making them a source of inspiration, as opposed to an object of the viewer’s pity. “You can quit,” these survivors attest. “This kind of approach is successful because it counters decades of glamorous smoking images in movies, ads and online videos, with equally compelling negative, emotional, associations of limitation, disease, deformity, loss,” says Yost.

A Final Thought About PSAs

The reasons why someone first starts using a drug and then goes on to abuse it are complex. This simple fact makes it unlikely that any ad campaign can adequately address something so multi-faceted. “It’s hard to get someone to switch which brand of laundry detergent they use,” notes Yost.  “Getting someone to not use drugs is infinitely more complicated.” That said, Yost believes that well-executed PSA campaigns can play an important role, especially when they don’t moralize to viewers or readers. What these ads are much better at, says Yost, is raising awareness. “That’s only the first hurdle in affecting an individual’s behavior, but it’s a necessary one.”

Photos (from top): Partnership for a Drug-Free America; National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council; Montana Meth Project; California Tobacco Control Program; Office of National Drug Control Policy and Partnership for a Drug-Free America; Partnership for a Drug-Free-America; Arnold Worldwide Global Creative and Advertising Agency and the Centers for Disease Control

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