Anti-drug propaganda has been around for decades in the United States, going back to the 1936 film Reefer Madness, and possibly before. In the early 1980s, the launch of the D.A.R.E. program reinvigorated drug prohibition sentiment, and in 1986, former President Ronald Reagan signed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act into law, instituting a mandatory minimum penalty for drug offenses. In parallel, a wealth of ads popped up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, aimed at keeping kids and adults off drugs.
If you grew up during that time, you probably remember a slate of ads that were ridiculous in tone: Videos with frying eggs, sloths, Pee-wee Herman, Mr. T, Clint Eastwood, and more, were used to catch people’s attention and instill fear instead of provide educational value on the drugs themselves.
Although these videos may have successfully caught our attention by eliciting ironic laughs or winks, they’re also a reminder of how absurd the War on Drugs and anti-drug messaging has been. The anti-drug videos of this era tend to brand all substances and the people who do them as evil, and ignore the greater societal problems of drug addiction, poverty, and class inequality, to name a few.
The War on Drugs continues to do harm today. Though research shows that Black and white Americans consume weed at roughly the same rate, Black people are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people, and in some states, it’s seven or eight times. At least one associate of former President Nixon—who launched the War on Drugs in the 1970s—has said that the Drug War was meant to suppress Black Americans and not necessarily curb drug usage.
Although these videos can be nostalgic and fun in their silly exaggerations, they’re also relics of an old narrative that all drugs are bad, that doing them once will get you hooked, and that you’ll waste your life away by doing them.
Times have changed, and we have new evidence to refute this messaging, especially as more states legalize cannabis and psychedelics like psilocybin enter the fold. Watching these videos is a reminder of just how far we’ve come in the past decade or so in the perception of drug use.
The history of cannabis prohibition in the United States
This Is Your Brain on Drugs
The classic anti-drug ad, “This Is Your Brain on Drugs,” was released in 1987. A sizzling egg is meant to simulate your post-drug brains, and serves as a dramatic metaphor to scare people away from all substances. YouTuber WigWoo1 perhaps says it best in the comments section: “You’re telling me drugs turn my brain into a delicious part of a balanced breakfast?”
Despite the confused metaphor, the ad became so emblematic of the anti-drug movement that it spawned a sequel ten years later, featuring then-unknown actress Rachael Leigh Cook. Focusing on heroin, the ad goes a step further when Cook smashes up an entire kitchen with a frying pan.
In 2017, Cook partnered with the Drug Policy Alliance, an agency aimed at educating and ending the Drug War, for another video, “This is your brain on drug policy.” A sign of a change in thinking, the video is a commentary on the futility of the War on Drugs, and how it targets people of color for mass incarceration, consequently ruining lives and communities.
Clint Eastwood and Nancy Reagan: The Thrill Can Kill/Just Say No
Another classic anti-drug ad, this video personifies the fear mongering of the War on Drugs and its detrimental effects. Released in 1987 and enlisting Dirty Harry himself, the ad taps into fear of the crack epidemic, which had particularly devastating consequences on the Black community in the US, and led to mass incarceration.
In this version of the video, Nancy Reagan, the former President’s wife, shows up to announce the launch of an ad campaign for the video and others like it in movie theaters across the country. “Say no to drugs, and say yes to life,” she says, propelling the “just say no” campaign that she started in the early ‘80s, and fuelling the resurgence of the War on Drugs.
Confusingly, the ad was followed up with a similar one four years later featuring Pee-wee Herman, a possible attempt at reaching kids.
Expungement: What does it mean and how do I get one?
Stoner Sloth: You’re Worse on Weed
This trio of Australian ads focus on weed, telling viewers that the plant turns everyone into slow, mindless zombies who forget everything. (Side note: These caricatures are actually moving around pretty quickly for sloths.)
These ads are a good example of how much hyperbole goes into anti-drug propaganda: You’d have to smoke some incredibly strong stuff to confuse salad for salt, as sloth Jason does in the second video. Weed may slow you down a bit, but the creators seem clueless about the actual effects of weed.
The sad music compounds the over-the-topness (and humor) of the ads, and the campaign even tries to go viral by promoting the hashtag “#stonersloth.” And it should go without saying that shaming someone for having an issue with drugs is not the way to handle the situation.
Talking dog: How Would You Tell a Friend?
Another example of “they must have been smoking some pretty strong stuff,” this ad features a dog telling its owner to stop smoking weed so they can play together outside more often. The creators try to pull at our heartstrings with the cute little dog, but the ad feels confused—it’s laughable because it suggests you have to be so high to think that your dog can talk to you… in order for your dog to tell you that you’re smoking too much.
A popular parody of the ad ends with the person calling his dealer to buy more weed—the stuff he’s smoking must be so good since a dog is talking to him.
Flat person: We Used to Have So Much Fun Together
Taking the term “couch lock” to the next level, I’ll give it to the folks at Above the Influence—the image of the flat person on the couch is disturbing, and it sticks in your head. The ad is another exaggeration of the relaxing effects of weed, a hallmark of anti-drug ads. (We argue that some pot strains can actually make you more fun and energized.)
Today, we know that different strains have different effects on individuals, and each person’s body chemistry interacts with weed in a unique way. It can help with multiple conditions, including stress and anxiety, depression, ADHD, and more.
How cannabis can help stress and anxiety
Here are some more classic anti-drug ads you may remember from the past.
Mr. T: Don’t or Else
I Learned It by Watching You
Ignoring a Friend’s Problem
David Hasselhoff and Kit: Don’t Mess with ‘em