For almost as long as drugs have been illegal, humankind has been plagued by horrible anti-drug PSAs. Today, it’s easy to laugh at the ridiculous videos of the ’40s and ’50s, but the truth of it is that today’s fare isn’t much better—as the stigmatizing anti-heroin Super Bowl ad reminded us earlier this month. Here’s a look at some of the worst anti-drug ads of the past century:
1. Reefer Madness (1938)
Louis Gasnier’s hour-long anti-drug film is today seen as the gold standard of horrible drug propaganda. It’s popular with modern viewers because of its over-the-top alarmist depictions of what theoretically happens to so-called marijuana addicts.
The plot follows an unmarried couple selling pot together, along with the help of two friends. The four dastardly potheads invite Bill and Jimmy over for a party. The ringleader, Jack, gives Jimmy a joint and he later runs over a pedestrian while stoned.
In another scene, one character gets stoned and, due to the insidious influence of the evil cannabis, tries to rape a woman. Then during a fight provoked by a hallucination, one of the women accidentally gets shot and the group decides to frame a passed-out Bill by putting the gun in his hands. The plot only gets weirder and less plausible as the film continues and the death toll increases.
At no point does anyone, more realistically, decimate a tray of brownies or kill a bag of chips in a single sitting.
Today, the makers of the film would probably be unhappy to know that it’s considered one of the great staples of pothead films. Instead of watching the film and shying away from drugs, modern viewers like to get stoned and laugh at its absurdity.
2. The Terrible Truth (1951)
This 10-minute video is just as bad as you’d expect a video starring a juvenile court judge to be. William B. McKesson, an erstwhile judge in the Los Angeles Juvenile Court, appears because of his “sense of duty and dedication to youth welfare,” according to the intro screen.
The film opens with the judge lamenting the growing number of “dope addicts” in the country. He lumps heroin and marijuana together as one and proclaims, “There’s one sure thing—nobody is going to stay an occasional user very long.”
He goes on to warn viewers that if they use narcotics, they’ll get “the habit,” which is “about the hardest in the world” to break. Again, all narcotics are jumbled together as one threat with the same consequences and effects—and that conflation continues throughout the whole film.
Frankly, that’s just lazy propaganda-making.
He goes on to tell the unrealistic, improbable and highly stigmatized story of a white teenager named Phyllis, who smoked marijuana and therefore turned into a heroin addict. When the film ends abruptly, seemingly mid-story, it’s a huge relief.
3. This is Your Brain on Drugs (1987)
Even today, this awful ’80s spot is one of the best-known anti-drug ads around. It’s a 30-second ad featuring an actor holding up an egg. “This is your brain,” he says. He cracks the egg in a frying pan and begins frying it: “This is your brain on drugs.”
The metaphor is short both on accuracy and on actual information and, accordingly, the ad is something the forward-thinking drug policy reform advocate and world-renowned neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart has railed against. Like many other anti-drug campaigns, this one is simply inaccurate. As Dr. Hart points out, the negative effects of certain drugs have been vastly overstated.
That’s problematic because, although anti-drug ads have been shown not to reduce drug use, the falsehoods they promote may contribute to harmful drug war policies that damage communities more than they help them.
By way of example, Dr. Hart writes, “Despite the fact that there was virtually no evidence supporting claims that crack produces unique destructive effects, in the late 1980s, the U.S. Congress passed the now infamous Anti-Drug Abuse Act, setting 100 times harsher penalties for crack than for powder cocaine convictions.” He attributes that to the political environment created by an incorrect understanding of the drugs’ effects.
4. Jumped (2006)
Created by the Montana Meth Project, this 30-second travesty opens with a young teen surrounded by a group of menacing men. He narrates, “I wish I’d taken that shortcut through the parking lot. I wish I’d gotten jumped. I wish they’d broken my ribs. Put me in the hospital.” As he speaks, the narrator gets the crap beaten out of him by strangers, who break a cinderblock over his head.
But, as he explains, none of that happened. Instead, he went to a party and tried meth for the first time. “Now,” he says, “all I do is meth.” As he narrates, the teen is shown tying off to shoot up—and a close-up of his face reveals that he seems to be decaying like a zombie. It’s not a Faces of Meth-style image, but an overblown and absurd face of the undead.
Comparing addiction to getting beaten by strangers is really not a productive way to have a serious discussion about drugs. It isn’t really a comparison that makes any sense—but that’s not the biggest problem with this PSA by far. It’s hard to nail down what exactly the biggest problem is—the unproductive, stigmatizing undead face is pretty awful—but the sheer dishonesty about the nature of addiction is a good candidate for worst.
The ad spot seems to imply that the unnamed boy tried meth once and immediately became a drug addict, on the spot. That’s not how addiction works. If you try meth or heroin today, you will not wake up addicted tomorrow. If the goal is to try to talk to kids about drugs and addiction, it’s really important to be clear and honest about how those things really work. Otherwise, the truly valuable message—that drug use can be deeply destructive—just gets lost in a sea of exaggeration and hyperbole.
5. All American Girl (2016)
The latest contribution to awful anti-drug ads is the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse’s minute-long anti-heroin spot at this year’s Super Bowl.
The ad shows an “all American girl” getting hooked on heroin, dropping out of cheerleading, tossing out her laptop and cell phone and leaving her dog tied up in the street. Although on a literal level, some of her actions don’t make sense—i.e., she can’t throw out her cell phone because she’ll definitely need it to call her dealer—like other anti-drug ads, it relies on metaphors that only kind of translate. But that’s not the biggest problem with the ad.
This ad is troubling because it reinforces an unspoken idea that it’s only the upper middle classes that need to be saved from drugs. No one cares about inner city minorities, it seems. When black communities were ravaged by the crack epidemic, they were hit with harsher sentencing guidelines and a bevy of new drug laws. Three decades later, when press coverage shows a heroin epidemic ravaging white communities, they get sympathy, PSAs and drug policy reform. In its effort to appeal to upper middle class whites, this ad simply takes the racism that’s become enmeshed in drug policy and transfers it to the realm of anti-drug rhetoric.
Although the anti-drug ads of yore are cheesier and more obviously laughable, at their core they aren’t that different from today’s higher production value ad spots.
As Paul Manning notes in Drugs and Popular Culture in the Age of New Media, although old ’40s and ’50s anti-drug ads are “sources of great amusement for contemporary audiences,” they have the same basic framework as PSAs today. He points out that typically PSAs “focus upon ‘innocent’ middle class identities, preventing young people with promising futures and much to lose from ‘going off the rails.’”
He’s not wrong—after all, you don’t see anti-drug ads set in the hood—and that’s kind of troubling. As much as our understanding of addiction has changed and grown over the past 75 years, it seems that our way of trying to prevent it hasn’t.
This post originally appeared on The Fix.