If you’ve paid attention to the media at all over the last few decades, you may have seen countless public service messages with the goal of reducing illicit drug use. Over the years, these have run the gamut—from the relatively calm appeals such as “Just Say No!,” to more shocking vignettes of young women vandalizing their kitchens to show “Your Future on Drugs” and teenage drug pushers whose faces morph into reptilian monsters. Seriously. In 1986, American audiences were even treated to a minute-long talk about the danger of crack cocaine from Paul Reubens portraying his fictional character Pee-Wee Herman.
Most of these campaigns came and went in their course, part of the background noise of after-school TV and Saturday morning cartoons for many kids. The anti-drug campaigns’ effectiveness may be called into question by the fact that the first generation to sit through them, the boys and girls born roughly between the years 1975 and 1990, is currently living through the worst opiate and amphetamine epidemic in American history.
Some ads achieved legendary status in their attempt to persuade viewers of the dangers of drugs. Long before there were “memes,” these ads came to serve as inside humor that bound Americans of all backgrounds. Most people under 50 have heard a parody such as “coffee… it’s MY anti-drug” or are familiar with the McDonald’s anti-drug PSA that features Michael Jordan.
Meth: Not Even Once Campaign
Anti-drug efforts created one of their more memorable campaigns in 2008. That is when the non-profit organization the Montana Meth Project secured a very generous grant from businessman Thomas Siebel, the billionaire entrepreneur behind both Siebel Enterprise Systems and C3i, a company that builds artificial intelligence software. After Siebel acquired ranch property in the state and began to understand the effects of meth-related incidents, he decided to get involved and even attended recovery events in the community. Though he wouldn’t give any details, he did say substance abuse affected at least someone close to him.
As part of the Montana Meth Project’s raft of early ventures, the group launched the now familiar “Meth: Not Even Once” campaign nationwide. Not Even Once was probably planned to be a well-intentioned effort to shock kids and young adults with the dangers of using amphetamines, use of which was at record-high levels and rising fast.
Video Ad Series
This series of almost 20 video ads aimed to shock viewers with their display of the brutal depths of depravity that meth users would go to to get their next fix. Videos depict graphic scenes like a violent mugging at a laundromat to get cash or the desperation of someone in a crack den fixated on their next hit. One of the more compelling ads begins post-coitus in a hotel room, with a man leaving the room and paying someone outside.
All of the ads end with the screen fading to black and the slogan: “Meth: Not Even Once.” Most of these ads juxtapose images from the teen’s seemingly normal life with the unthinkable depths they’ve sunk to in drug addiction. Often a protagonist or friend of the victim speaks directly into the camera describing the situation.
To help make these ads stand out from the more average PSA, Siebel hired directors who were known for their brutal subject matter. They included Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), English auteur Tony Kaye (American History X), and American auteur Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream). There may even have been an attempt to enlist Quentin Tarantino, according to a FastCompany.com article.
Soon a new campaign was using the phrase, “This isn’t normal, but on meth it is,” and spawning ads in print and on television and billboards. The initiative drew strong and varying reactions across the Internet: Typically cynical forums like Reddit called the messaging and imagery brutal, while parodies streamed in elsewhere. Over the next four years, this point/counterpoint battle of memes would gradually escalate, until Internet trolls were spamming various forums with surreal pictures of Chewbacca throwing out the first pitch of the World Series under text overlays such as “Not Even Once” and “This isn’t normal, but on meth, it is.”
The ads targeted particular markets, but as with most advertising, bled into other sectors. By the late 2000s, it was difficult to miss these ads due to their sheer volume on the air and the brutality with which they depicted meth addiction. In 2009 the Montana Meth Project was the states’ largest single advertiser. In 2013, “The Meth Project,” (the umbrella for the Colorado, Georgia and Montana Meth Project), joined forces with Partnership for a Drug-Free Kids, an organization known for more run-of-the-mill, anti-drug awareness campaigns, and launched another round of messaging.
Anti-Drug Campaign Effectiveness by the Numbers
The Meth Project concluded, based on its statistics, that its saturation-led advertising was successful at reducing meth use in targeted markets. The supporting evidence, according to the Meth Project:
- Meth use declined by 45 percent in teens and 72 percent in adults;
- Montana significantly lowered its national ranking for drug abuse involving meth;
- and, after four years, Montana teens’ use of meth declined by 63 percent and meth-related crimes by 62 percent.
Some researchers voiced skepticism about these claims. A professor in addiction studies at UCLA School of Medicine, Richard Rawson, said it was unlikely that scare tactics alone could produce such significant changes in behavior—but Dr. Rawson was quick to point out that “the program in Montana is far more than that.” (To be sure, the program has entailed school outreach, public art projects and experimental rehab facilities focusing on meth-addicted criminals.)
In Siebel’s view, the campaign is an effective private endeavor to address drug addiction rates. Drawing a contrast with the Bush administration’s “War on Drugs,” Siebel said the latter and its initiatives were, on the other hand, “outright fabrications.”
The question of effectiveness remains, however. When nonprofits, states, and the federal government have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into various awareness campaigns aimed at discouraging kids from trying drugs, it helps to know what initiatives are really working (and what’s not). The Montana Meth Project is far from the only program seeking to bring down rates of meth use. There is now legislation forcing retailers to more tightly control pseudoephedrine, an ingredient used to make meth.
And, not everyone is as sure as Siebel about the effectiveness of his campaign:
- Elizabeth Ginexi of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said, “I haven’t seen any evidence they’ve provided that convinces me that their program led to the specific decline.”
- When Australian grad student David Erceg-Hurn (mentioned in the FastCompany article) closely analyzed the Meth Project’s own data, he found that 84 percent of teen viewers were still at “great” or “moderate” risk of dying from meth use after they watched the ads. (In other words, there was no notable change that could be attributed to the ads.)
On a broader scale, a record number of young people across the United States were trying drugs. According to the U.S. National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics, drug abuse among eighth graders rose by 61 percent between 2016 and 2020 alone, while more than 50 percent of teens reported having abused drugs at least once in their lives. Adolescent overdose deaths from all causes reached an all-time high of 5,455 in 2017. That is more than the 3,143 kids under age 20 who died the year before from all gun injuries combined.
Meth: Why Not Even Once?
To be fair to the campaign organizers, trying meth once and potentially getting hooked is a really big deal. Synthesized out of a witches’ brew of whatever you can get at the pharmacy, plus some solvents from under the sink, street-level methamphetamine has a serious stimulant effect that can cause heart palpitations, profuse sweating, and disturbed behavior, often involving violence. At higher levels, overdose is a real threat, while even moderate doses of the drug can contribute to overheating and heat exhaustion, which can be fatal. Stereotypical behaviors among users of meth include compulsive face picking and tooth grinding, as well as forced or “pressured” speech, distracted conversation, and altered levels of consciousness.
Because the drug is addictive, users tend to keep using until mounting consequences force them to stop. Death, severe brain damage, and long jail terms are among these consequences, though the rate of relapse among meth users is toward the high end of all drug categories (though lower than nicotine). Each year, meth abuse costs an estimated half a billion dollars. That would be on top of the nearly $150 billion American drug users spent on their own to get cocaine, heroin, and meth in the same year.
In light of these figures, it’s not surprising that the government, various private-sector industries, and even private philanthropists like Thomas Siebel have acted out of concern. What’s especially worrying is how use keeps going up, with an estimated 2.2 million Americans reporting regular meth use in 2016 and 3.3 million reporting the same in 2020. (Bear in mind that these are official government figures, and nobody knows how eager drug users are to report their use to people who aren’t federal agents. The numbers could easily be far higher, especially among kids.)
While it’s true that America’s PSAs can be cheesy, corny, over-the-top and easy to parody, there’s also sense in what they’re trying to accomplish. With illegal drug use at or near all-time highs, and the costs in lives, money and wasted energy that go along with that, it’s not fair to blame people in positions of authority for trying to stem the tide. While the effectiveness of anti-drug campaigns can be difficult to measure and can fall into the “dubious” category, drugs are still a major problem that needs to be addressed.
If you or someone you care about has a substance abuse problem, please know that personal, one-on-one help is available. Contact us today by calling us at (844) 299-0618. Our compassionate team of counselors is standing by to take your call 24/7.