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Nancy Reagan may have pleaded with America’s youth to “Just Say No,” but she never understood the true value of marketing. Just as mainstream media has glamorized recreational drug use, so it can be used to preach its downsides. Here: five antidrug marketing campaigns that altered America’s relationship with its toxins of choice, for better and for worse.

“This is your brain on drugs.”
It started as a gravitas-laden television ad, all sizzle and circumstance. Whole, the egg seemed pristine. Cracked, it became a metaphor for a decidedly addled cerebrum. For the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, this was a triumph of advertising-meets-social work. They could only cringe, however, as their iconic moving images morphed into a poster that generations of stoner college kids would snicker at between tokes.

“I learned from watching you, Dad!”
An even more quotable ad from the Partnership was this ’80s nod to drug use as an intergenerational affair. A livid father finds his son’s hidden stash. After suffering his father’s excoriation, the son lashes back: “I learned from watching you, Dad! I learned it from watching you!” To this day, it remains one of the few mainstream antidrug ads not aimed directly at young people.

“We’re not candy!”
Embracing the belief that it’s never too early to brainwash children, this public service ad featured a chorus line of pastel-colored pills, dancing and singing in pre-Teletubby falsetto. The ad sought to dissuade kids from sampling their parents’ prescriptions, thinking they were candy. Sang the pills: “This is serious. We could make you delirious…We’re not candy, even though we look so fine and dandy. When you’re sick, we come in handy. But we’re not candy!” Oh, don’t be coy.

“Bob, I’ve got emphysema.”
When Big Tobacco agreed to halt its billboard advertising, the California Department of Health Services filled their void with a series of billboards to make Adbusters magazine proud. The two most popular ads riff on the Marlboro Man iconography that is synonymous with smoking’s masculine allure. In one, a flaccid cigarette dangles metaphorically from the lip of the famous cowpoke; in the other, a Stetsoned rider turns to another, lamenting: “I miss my lung, Bob.”

Thetruth.com
Instead of blowing its millions on corny spots that just make kids want to keep smoking, the national-tobacco-settlement-funded American Legacy Foundation started “the truth” — an ad campaign that goes straight for the jugular. Edgy print ads feature teens holding readouts of obscene tobacco-related death statistics.

In Hispanic communities, it runs bilingual radio ads questioning why Big Tobacco targets minorities. And in its most memorable contribution, “the truth” filmed teens building a wall of body bags, each stenciled with the word smoker, outside Philip Morris headquarters. Fox and CBS refused to run the ad — too “morbid,” they said — but “Body Bag” finally aired on NBC during the Olympics.

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DEMOCRACY DOES NOT EXIST...

without free and fair elections, a vigorous free press, and engaged citizens to reclaim power from those who abuse it.

In this election year unlike any other—against a backdrop of a pandemic, an economic crisis, racial reckoning, and so much daily bluster—Mother Jones' journalism is driven by one simple question: Will America move closer to, or further from, justice and equity in the years to come?

If you're able to, please join us in this mission with a donation today. Our reporting right now is focused on voting rights and election security, corruption, disinformation, racial and gender equity, and the climate crisis. We can’t do it without the support of readers like you, and we need to give it everything we've got between now and November. Thank you.

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