Trump’s New Opioid Ads Go Beyond ‘Just Say No’

The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled its first round of anti-drug TV ads, a key plank in the president’s efforts to combat America’s spiraling opioids crisis. They make for grisly viewing. Each of the four 30-second spots depict opiods abusers deliberately injuring themselves in order to regain access to the pain meds they crave: a boy hits himself with a hammer, a man slams his hand in a door, a woman deliberately crashes her car. They’re true stories. They’re hard to watch.

This is in keeping with Trump’s support for what you could call the “scared straight” school of drug policy: “That’s the least expensive thing we can do, where you scare them from ending up like the people in the commercials,” he said at an opioids event in March. “We’ll make them very, very bad commercials. We’ll make them pretty unsavory situations.”

Will they work? The president’s critics are convinced they won’t. They point to the hundreds of millions of dollars the government spent on the famous—and famously unsuccessful— “Just Say No” ad campaigns of the ’80s and ’90s, as well as national drug education programs like Drug Abuse Resistance Education. If “this is your brain on drugs” couldn’t scare last generation’s teens off illicit substances, the argument goes, why should this time be any different? But there’s a legitimate case to be made that these new ads may prove more successful than their predecessors.

To start with the obvious: The ’80s-era drug ads sort of sucked, overshooting the intended tone of “solemn straight talk” and carrying right on to “melodramatic camp.” With their tortured metaphors for drug use, cartoonishly freakish portrayals of addicts, and dire narration, it’s no wonder that those campaigns have become embedded in our cultural memory as just another comedic relic of America’s irony-free pre-internet days. And no wonder that plenty of kids brushed them off as an overreaction.

The new ads manage to avoid this by ignoring the physical effects of drug use, instead focusing on the harrowing psychological toll brought on by addiction. The drugs themselves are nowhere to be seen in the new spots; the addicts portrayed aren’t emaciated or otherwise physically offputting. This allows you to focus on the unsettling truth on offer: Take opioids, either recreationally or to manage pain, and you run the risk of becoming so dependent on them there’s nothing you wouldn’t do to get more.

Which leads to the second reason these ads might make a real impact: The target audience is not the same as in the drug PSAs of yesteryear. While those ads focused on teenagers, the Trump administration’s initial campaign is hoping to reach young adults, the group that the National Institute on Drug Abuse says are most likely to abuse prescription drugs. Even though the ads are frightening, their goal is not simply to scare, but to educate. Reagan-era campaigns had the unenviable task of trying to convince teenagers that drugs weren’t cool—because nothing is cooler than hysterical spots from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Today’s ads will be a comparative success if they can simply convince surgical patients to ask their doctor, “Are you really sure I need Vicodin for this?”

Of course, no ad campaign is good enough to solve the drug crisis that’s here already: Helping the millions of Americans already in the grip of addiction to prescription and illicit opioids is a systemic challenge that the federal government is likely to wrestle with for decades. But if President Trump was set on including a “scared-straight” component to help keep non-users from picking drugs up in the first place, he certainly could have done far worse.

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