July 15, 1998
JOURNAL / By FRANK RICH
Just Say $1 Billion
If all the merchandising might of Hollywood couldn't make America's teen-agers buy "Godzilla," why does anyone think that a five-year, $1 billion government ad campaign is going to make kids swear off drugs?
Especially ads like these. No sooner was this new exercise in bipartisan idiocy announced by Bill Clinton and seconded by Newt Gingrich last week than the premiere commercial of the campaign hit the networks.
In this elegantly shot display of high-concept Madison Avenue creativity, a young woman armed with a skillet angrily smashes an egg and then an entire kitchen to dramatize the destructiveness of heroin. The ad is an oh-so-hip variation on a Golden Oldie of Reagan-era anti-drug advertising -- remember that fried egg once labeled "your brain on drugs"? -- and it sends bizarrely mixed messages. The woman looks like Winona Ryder; she's wearing a tight tank top; there are no visible track marks on her junkie-thin arms; and the kitchen representing her drug-induced hell is echt Pottery Barn, if not Williams-Sonoma.
Far from discouraging teen-agers from drug use, our anti-heroin heroine -- so sexy when she gets mad -- may inspire some of them to seek out a vixen like her for a date.
The mixed messages hardly end there.
Not only will these ads coexist on TV with those pushing beer and pharmaceutical panaceas but with a commercial culture that in general subliminally sells intoxication. "A lot of advertising equates products with drug experiences," says Thomas Frank, the author of "The Conquest of Cool," a scintillating history of the modern ad biz. Whether it's a soft drink like Fruitopia trading on psychedelic packaging or a stylish new car promising its owner escape and speed or a Nike shoe bestowing enhanced physical powers, the ubiquitous message of the advertising medium is Get High.
Though the new anti-drug campaign is the largest government merchandising effort in history, it's hard to imagine how it will be heard above the din surrounding it. Even at almost $400 million a year (half public funds, half pro bono freebies from media participants), it's still a far smaller campaign than McDonald's current and as yet inconclusive effort to win back its youthful defectors. Meanwhile, the industry publication Brandweek has challenged the methods of academic studies that the Partnership for a Drug-Free America trots out to defend the efficacy of anti-drug advertising. It calls the research "flimsy," adding that its findings "would hardly justify launching a new stain remover, let alone a program meant to help keep children sober and alive."
While partisans on all sides of the drug wars have condemned the new ad campaign as wasteful, arguing that the money might be spent better on either more law enforcement or on more after-school programs and drug treatment, the public has been mum. This only encourages Washington to think of advertising as the new instant remedy to fool voters into believing that it is addressing intractable problems; Speaker Gingrich, proposing a new tobacco bill to replace John McCain's, has already suggested that anti-smoking ads be its centerpiece. What's next? An ad campaign to brainwash Americans into believing that they can trust their H.M.O.'s? It's enough to make you pine for the usual government gimmick of appointing blue-ribbon commissions to finesse hard policy questions, whether about AIDS or women in the military or Social Security. These commissions don't do anything either, but at least they don't cost us a billion bucks.
Where is all that money going? To advertising agencies and their media outlets, from newspapers to MTV. Advertising Age reports that most of the first $90 million installment will go -- where else? -- to Disney. The mouse will throw in some bonus public service announcements on ABC, a Web site and, who knows, maybe an Epcot ride simulating the OD experience, in exchange for a $50 million "multimedia, cross-property package." The idea of Disney being on the Government dole is amusing enough, but it may also introduce a new economic model to the long and tortured history of the drug war. Where once we had companies that laundered drug money, now we have corporations synergizing anti-drug money. Should its "Armageddon" not cross the line into profit, Disney's share of this Washington bonanza may be just the fix it needs to help it feel no pain.