The best anti-pot ad ever.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 18 2007 7:43 AM

Aliens Don't Do Drugs

The best anti-pot ad ever.

The spot:A cartoon guy and gal are hanging out in a crudely drawn landscape. The guy puffs on a joint and exhales a jet of smoke. "Not again," says the disappointed girl. Suddenly, a UFO descends from the sky. A small alien emerges and walks over to the couple. The guy politely offers the alien a toke, but the creature declines—and at this, the girl swoons. We see the alien and the girl fly off together in the spaceship, leaving the jilted stoner alone with his thoughts.

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.

Until recently, most anti-marijuana ads made the same fundamental mistake: They tried to link smoking weed with some sort of immediate physical danger. Think of the PSA in which a carful of stoners runs over a girl on a bicycle; or the one in which a fuzzy-brained pot smoker shoots his friend (oopsy daisy!) in the head. Melodramatic scare tactics like these may reassure the older, out-of-touch politicians who approve federal funding for anti-drug ads. But when it comes to a drug like weed, this message just doesn't ring true with the people it's meant to reach.

"It's easy to do ads about drugs like heroin and meth, and the awful consequences that manifest," says Tom Riley, director of public affairs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "It's harder to make ads about marijuana. 'Marijuana's gonna melt your face off' isn't really a credible thing to say to teens."

This realization—the result, according to Riley, of stepped-up research into the mindset of the 13- to 17-year-old target market (though I could have saved them a pile of money if -they'd just asked me)—has led to a far more soft-pedal approach of late. Consider "Pete's Couch": In this anti-pot PSA, the major immediate danger posed by smoking weed is that you might sit around on your sofa for 11 hours straight. The ad won points with me for its honesty (I've blazed away a few couch-bound afternoons of my own). But I doubt the specter of inactivity is a deterrent for the average teen. With the advent of instant messaging, on-demand digital cable, and really awesome video games, I get the sense that modern youth sees no downside to spending entire fortnights immobile on an overstuffed cushion.

This new campaign opts for slightly scarier scare tactics. Again, though, the nature of the threat is subtler and more realistic. (Well, as realistic as an ad that features space aliens can be.) There's no fatal car crash or gun accident—that kind of acute disaster would never enter into the cost/benefit analysis a teen might run before getting high. Instead, the frightening possibility posited here is that smoking weed will make you boring to be around. The animated lass in the ad described above seems fed up with her stoner boyfriend—her one line of dialogue is the ad's title: "Not again"—and she's quick to ditch him when that straight-edge alien dude happens along.

In a separate spot, a pot smoker's dog asks him to quit. (I'll just note here that I've never, no matter how blazed, been addressed by a house pet.) When the smoker declines, the dog strolls away, muttering, "You disappoint me."

Of all the legitimate fears that gnaw at the average marijuana user, two of the more troubling are 1) the fear that nonsmoker friends, or lovers, might find them tiresome and pathetic, and 2) the fear that they might be growing dependent on the drug. This campaign effectively picks at both of these insecurities. Just as important (when it comes to reaching too-cool teens), it does so in a low-key, unembellished manner.

I spoke to Ginger Robinson and Patty Fogarty, the copywriter and art director who worked pro bono on the campaign at the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy. They told me the scenarios in these spots came from personal experiences. They also stressed that they didn't want the ads to seem slick or fancy, like something the government would produce. The aesthetics here are purposefully stripped down and casual.

The lovely, doodle-y animation (by animator "Pistachios"*) helps sidestep most of the pitfalls that endanger any work aimed at teens. (The "that kid's not me, he's wearing the wrong kind of T-shirt" problem, as described by Robinson and Fogarty.) Similarly, casting an alien as the guy who sweeps the girl off her feet, while the stoner feebly looks on, eliminates the need to decide what sort of person the girl would be likely to find more appealing than a pot user. Having her new suitor be a drug-free preppie (or jock, or musician, or whatever) would be fraught with all kinds of peril. Not so with an alien—because aliens are always cool.

Finally, perhaps my favorite part of this campaign is the music. It's by Charlie Campbell, a composer in Portland, Ore., (where Wieden & Kennedy is based), and he wrote each piece specifically for the spot it's used in. His sweetly quirky sound is in large part what makes these ads so charming.

Grade: A. This is very possibly the most effective, and least offensive, anti-marijuana campaign ever created. I know that ONDCP, and the Partnership for a Drug Free America, are cautiously thrilled with it. I expect it will be the model for years to come.

* Correction, June 25, 2007: This piece originally stated that the animation in the ad was by artist Souther Salazar. The animator was "Pistachios." Salazar was the illustrator. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

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