High and Mighty
The lies of the anti-drug propaganda machine.
To succeed, a propaganda campaign need not convince its audience; it need merely suck the oxygen out of the lungs of its foes. Prior to its alliance with the government, the PDFA merely hogged the drug debate. Now it stands to monopolize it, thanks to its ad dollars and its friends in the media. July 9, PBS's The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer ran, without comment, all the PDFA's new ads. (The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, responsible for 50 percent of the PDFA's funding, also donated over $500,000 to PBS last year.) Media luminaries from ABC News anchor Peter Jennings to Washington Post Co. mogul Katharine Graham have supported the PDFA since its inception. The editorial side of Graham's Post has only compliments for the PDFA, while the advertising side has donated ad space to it. (The paternalism of the PDFA's campaign has sunk in at major newsrooms. Click
We don't trust Madison Avenue to tell us the truth about fabric softener, so why are we letting it brainwash our children about drugs? Indeed, if the PDFA had a shred of integrity, its ads would be battling alcohol and tobacco, America's two most injurious drugs and the two most popular among teens. (The PDFA no longer takes money from Philip Morris, RJR Reynolds, and Anheuser-Busch or other booze and smokes companies, but even so, the alcohol connection remains: Margeotes/Fertitta and Partners, which created the waif spot, also designs Stolichnaya vodka ads.)
In a rational world, the Republicans who decry the anti-tobacco campaign as another appendage of the nanny state would see through the PDFA campaign and reiterate their belief that Americans can be trusted to make informed choices. For instance, contrary to what the raccoon-eyed waif suggests, many heroin users are able to use their drugs and conduct functional lives. What makes heroin users' life so crazy is that their dependence on an illegal drug forces them to enter a criminal underworld. The PDFA ignores these subtleties. Likewise with cocaine: Most of the 22 million Americans who've tried it have had no trouble walking away from it. And pot? No one has ever overdosed.
By confusing propaganda with education, the PDFA stands to reap the whirlwind. We don't lie to kids about alcohol. Everyone knows from an early age what it can do--and that most people can handle liquor, but some people can't. Eventually kids see through the drug hysteria, usually by the time they turn 12 or 13 and start observing drug users for themselves. When they discover they've been lied to, they stop trusting the liar--their parents or teachers or TV commercials--and start trusting their peers. Whatever real opportunity we have to reach them vanishes. Simply letting kids know what the real risks are, without hyperbole, should be enough. Madison Avenue propaganda is counterproductive.
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Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.