This is your ass on drugs.

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 25 2006 1:57 PM

This Is Your Ass on Drugs

The new case against pot? It makes you lazy.

Click here to see the spot

The spot: A high-school kid sits on a couch in a basement rec room, next to a couple of stoner friends. Looking straight at the camera, he says, "I smoked weed and nobody died. I didn't get into a car accident. I didn't OD on heroin the next day. Nothing happened. We sat on Pete's couch for 11 hours." The couch then magically teleports into the midst of some wholesome teen scenes (kids mountain biking, ice skating, playing basketball), while the zonked-out stoners just sit there, looking bored. Our narrator concedes that you're more likely to die out there in the real world ("driving hard to the rim" or "ice skating with a girl") than on Pete's couch back in the rec room. But, deciding it's worth the trade-off, he says, "I'll take my chances out there." (Click here to see the spot.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

In the past two decades, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America have made countless TV ads about the evils of illicit drugs. There was the one where that tweaker chick on meth plucked out her whole eyebrow. There was the one where Rachael Leigh Cook smashed up her kitchen. And, of course, there was the granddaddy of them all: the fried egg. ("This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?") I've hated every single one of these ads with a raging, righteous fury. Until now.

This new spot, titled "Pete's Couch," doesn't offend me. It acknowledges that smoking weed on your buddy's sofa is the "safest thing in the world." (Which is true. I actually had a friend named Pete in high school, and we did get high on his couch. No turmoil ensued.) The ad's main contention is that it's important to get off that couch and out into the world, where you can do things like ice skate with other teens. (Also true. It is indeed good to engage with the outside world, instead of just sitting in your rec room. Though I'd note that it's possible to smoke pot in your rec room one day and then go ice skating the next. Or even just smoke pot and immediately go ice skating—which, come to think of it, sounds like a blast. Who's in?)

Whatever you may think of its arguments, this spot is quite a departure for the ONDCP. Finally, an admission that using pot isn't necessarily calamitous. It's possible we're seeing this about-face only because previous scare-tactic ads were recently proved to increase drug use. But either way, I applaud the new, more truthful strategy. Lying is never what you want from your government (even if you've grown accustomed to it).

What should we be telling kids about drugs? I remember once seeing an anti-drug ad from way back when (I'm guessing the mid-1950s). Black-and-white footage showed happy kids horsing around on a playground while the kindly narrator offered his view that it's more fulfilling to find our bliss in life without mixing in the fog and dependency of drug abuse. Totally fair point, made without resorting to exaggeration or untruth. I recall thinking at the time that I wished modern anti-drug ads could be so reasonable. Instead, recent PSAs have suggested that drug use leads to: 1) Shooting your friend in the head, 2) running over a little girl on her bike, and 3) helping the terrorists.

In this context, "Pete's Couch" is a work of bracing honesty. Other spots in the ongoing "Above the Influence" campaign have been unawful, too. In "Whatever," a straight-edge kid talks about chaperoning his stoned friends around, acting as designated driver and as a sort of den mother for his wasted buddies. The point is that this kid makes his own decisions and chooses to stay off drugs even though his friends are getting high. Aside from cloaking the stoner kids' faces in shadows (as though smoking pot makes them incorporeal nothings), the ad is done in a low-key, nonhyperbolic way. I like that it seems to say it's OK to be friends with pot smokers (instead of instantly calling the cops on them, as past ads might have recommended).

Quick question, though, in light of this new marijuana glasnost: Will the ONDCP now retract its previous claims that pot is a dangerous gateway drug? And, logical next question (as others have noted): If smoking pot is the safest thing in the world, does not lead to the use of harder drugs, and, worst case, causes you to veg out on a couch for several hours, why is it a criminal offense? I eagerly await the ads addressing this conundrum. 

Grade: B+. In general, I approve of the message here. It isn't ideal to be stoned on your couch all the time. I think most high-school kids can grasp and appreciate that truth. Will the ad stop those kids from experimenting with pot? No. Because smoking pot is also fun and largely harmless, and most high-school kids can grasp and appreciate that truth, too.


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