Reminiscing about Anti-Drug PSAs of Our Youth

During Power Rangers commercial breaks, I remember seeing Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that featured kids and cartoon characters talking (or rapping) about the “un-coolness” of doing drugs. These PSAs were aimed to teach kids to do the right thing by avoiding drugs, but how strong were they? (PSAs, not drugs.)

I wasn’t clear on why drugs were bad. (What does getting high mean?) A common anti-drug PSA statement I remember was, “Say no to drugs and be cool.” Not exactly convincing. For example, let’s say we’re interested in investing on a Lego Star Wars set and are offered the promise, “Own this Lego play set so you can learn and experience the true nature of the force and become the ultimate Jedi.” Many of our childhood PSAs did not exactly speak to us in a promising way like the Lego Star Wars set did.

When I asked members of Gen Y which PSAs they remember growing up with, the top three were the following:

1. Rachael Leigh Cook – “This Is Your Brain on Heroin” (1998)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=qyXFN4ocN_o

This PSA (by Partnership for a Drug Free America) has Rachael Leigh Cook looking hot in her tight clothes and if heroin makes you look this good smashing things, well, let’s smash away. Cook was a good candidate for the PSA because audience members grew up seeing her on-screen modeling and acting. She gave viewers the impression of being a “tough-girl teacher.” The idea was to use her anger to scare the audience into thinking that once you’re on heroin, your mind, body and life will spiral out-of-control.

Although we weren’t really provided information about heroin itself, we were left with a feeling of urgency to smash things.

2. Ninja Turtles – “I’m Not a Chicken, You’re a Turkey” (1991)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=s2kKjpNWHks

Another PSA by Partnership for a Drug Free America. Oh, hey! Ninja Turtles acting as teachers! What? Even more kids? I see the tactic here! Cast eager-to-learn grade-one kids watching Ninja Turtles on a projector and have them connect with pre-teens watching at home. Nice! Now, what’s marijuana?

Though this PSA was memorable for featuring the totally rad Turtles, it’s just too busy. For a 30-second PSA, there was an overload of frames and cast members. This was unfortunate because we were unable to learn why drug dealers are “dorks.”

3. MADD, Canada – “Glasses” (1992)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=MrhV3QTkNyw

This PSA by MADD Canada spoke to us using simple visuals and allowed us to imagine family members ending up in a drunk driving scenario. It’s nice because it is to the point.

It effectively showed action, gave reason and consequence without having to play “teacher” (that’s the last thing we want) and had strong SFX throughout.

Honorable mention -” Don’t you put it in your mouth” (1990s)

http://youtube.com/watch?v=vyl5Mwr84MA

Every Gen Y member remembers the catchy jingle, the blue puppets who sound like Marge Simpson, and we still sing the tune to this day! This PSA elaborates on the reason we shouldn’t put things in our mouths and also reminds us not to talk to strangers, “always ask someone you love before you put things in your mouth.” It’s fun to follow, and while I am aware that it’s not an anti-drug PSA, it is general enough to crossover to something drug-related.

When it comes to PSAs, we want to be able to connect and be provided firsthand experiences. Simplicity is important (like the MADD PSA), as well as good reasoning, so that we can feel the PSA come alive. The “Don’t You Put It In Your Mouth” PSA is effective because the audience was given the opportunity to participate through song.

We didn’t want to be taught, we wanted to be involved. With that, we will realize why it is very cool to make responsible choices and be as cool as the Power Rangers. It’s morphing time!

Photo credit: Morguefile – http://mrg.bz/U5H2jt

Susan Hua Why hello there! My name is Susan and I'm a Torontonian. I am currently attending Seneca College for Creative Advertising and recently graduated from York University in Sociology. I like to be observant and am always up for a good talk. My outlets for crazy days are: analyzing ads, sunshine, combat classes (training to be a ninja) and mindful breathing. Twitter: @satisfeye

View all posts by Susan Hua

24 Responses to “Reminiscing about Anti-Drug PSAs of Our Youth”

  1. Lily

    Wonderful artticle! I completely agree that most of the PSAs out there don’t quite get the message across to choildren. Excellent choices for reference on the PSAs of the the 90s! I can recall most of the blue puppets jingle ‘don’t you put it in your mouth’. I think that PSAs should aim more towards explaining why and what they’re trying they’re trying to preach to children, tweens and teens. Some of the newer PSAs aim more to explaining but some of them are a little over the top and worst case scenerio settings.

    Congratulations on the publish! A job well done.

    L.

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      Thank you for your comment and kind words. Don’t You Put It In Your Mouth is quite an awesome one! I was just singing it yesterday with my family members (also Gen Y’ers). Yup, it was a great tune to sing for family fun night :)

      Speaking of good songs to sing, take a look at this ALS spot that takes on a recognized song and couples it with an emotional feel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g0Q4kIx95aU (not anti-drug, but does it’s job, by Lowe Roche Toronto).

      Reply
  2. Wilson

    Hey great read, really made me think of childhood PSA’s, I just think that the first two don’t give children enough credit in their intelligence, although I say this with hindsight and with age comes experience, but as a child I believe I saw those commercials and didn’t know what they were talking about so I would just ignore those commercials, but had the message explained to me why not to do drugs and what the harmful things are, rather then give me a base reason of why its not good for you, I would rather have had the psa explain the content of the drugs and what the effects are, that way I’d have been more aware and could also make the responsible choice myself. Telling this generation what to do vs. rationalizing consequences, small difference, but to empower someone to make their own decision allows for them to think the idea of doing whats right was their idea, so they’ll do whats right more often.

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      That’s right, Wilson, empowerment and getting that feeling that the PSA is actually speaking to them directly is a great way of improving future PSAs.

      Thanks for your words :)

      Reply
  3. Megan

    As usual Susan, great post! As I read this post I asked myself: what PSAs do I remember from my childhood? And the first one that came to mind was the “Don’t Put it in Your Mouth”. For one reason, it is relatable – my mother always said that to either myself or one of my brothers. And the blue fuzzy creatures are just fun – they are reminiscent of the Muppets or Sesame Street. As for the other three examples you gave, I honestly can’t remember seeing them as a child. Maybe as a child I was just blind to the negativity being shown on television. Or maybe I just have a bad memory. I agree with Wilson that we don’t give kids enough credit to have the intelligence to make the right choices. They are bombarded left, right and centre to just say no to drugs and alcohol, yet we don’t explain why they should say no. What I like about the “don’t put it in your mouth” PSA is, it actually tells that putting bad things in your mouth will make you feel “ick”. Perhaps PSAs geared at the younger target markets should learn from this simple PSA – tell them why they shouldn’t do drugs & drink alcohol & what drugs & alcohol can do to you. We as future adlanders who will someday make PSAs should educate, not delegate.

    Reply
  4. Robin Soukvilay

    Wonderful article Susan! You’ve provided many great points worth remembering. I do still feel though that sometimes association with your favourite tv characters CAN be enough to influence them into doing the right thing. It’s hard to say now because we’re looking at it in hindsight no matter how hard we try to remember what we thought at the time.
    Great article, nonetheless. They are always very thoughtfully written and in a way that always connects to your reader.

    “Don’t put it in your mouth”…never underestimate the power of the jingle…….or a change in our perspectives as we grow up that cement this in our brains forever! “Don’t put it in your mouth…don’t stuff it in your face?” LOL dirty.. =p

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      In that case, let’s keep this PSA forever on our radar and see how future generations will shape it in their own “unique” way.

      Reply
  5. Dee

    Susan Hua. You never fail to impress me with your creativeness and thorough explanations of why certain things suck sometimes. I remember when we were younger we often sang those dam jingles and didn’t even understand what we were singing about. We just found the songs catchy and easy to remember. But there is one PSA that I’ll always even til today hear myself singing. Remember those decked out 80s harem neon pants wearing saucer riding rabbits? “STAY ALERT STAY SAFE” lol. ah. BERT and GERT! LOL. Great Job Cuz!! your awesome.

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      Oh the power jingles have over us ;) I’m thinking about the Stay Alert, Stay safe jingle as I am responding to your comment.

      I recall these ones quite well and remember enjoying them as a kid because I thought it was an actual show. I watched a collection of these PSAs this morning http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zn4cfVU7llw …similar to how Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer are structured – audience participation :)

      Reply
  6. Adriana

    I think this is a great article Susan. Definitely an important aspect of PSAs is the method through which the message is delivered. It happens too often where attempts to educate the public, children in particular, fail. However, I am personally against all PSAs. I think that educating the public on health related matters is a very efficient way of NOT dealing with a problem. It is too easy for political figures to recognize an issue and create a PSA as a solution. Such social issues are usually complex, such as drug use in teens. It is interesting to note that youth who turn to drugs, likely resulting in a life long addiction, are those who see it as a solution to emotional problems. There could be other factors involved as well with teen drug use that should be explored and approached in an appropriate manner.

    Reply
    • Howie

      I agree with you Adriana. The whole issue of drug use is megacomplex. Some turn to drugs for mind expansion/exploration, others for escapism, and others via depression. Everything is lumped into one pot and it shouldn’t be.

      Also I think too many PSA’s are not created by people with first hand knowledge about what the PSA is trying to say.

      Reply
  7. Jena Jeans

    Hello,

    I must say that I agree with the sentiment in your article. It is very important for us all to feel connected to these advertisements, yet they are so much than just simple advertisements; they are truly public service announcements.
    If only we were wise enough to pay attention to the message. But at such a young age, such a feat seems darn near impossible. I’m sure a lot of us did not realize the gravity of the situation on the streets, especially the pre-pubescent children these ads were likely aimed at.
    It is a pleasant thought to believe that these ads might be impacting our youth and preventing them from making future unwise choices however, I am sure we all remember when we were teenagers and how our views changed radically from day to day. Many of us who believed we would never take a drink until we were the legal age or would never smoke at all wound up dipping our toes into the waters.
    Hopefully those who would create such “PSAs” in the future would take these into consideration.

    Thank you for your time,
    Jena

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      Diana reminded of Stay Alert, Stay Safe spots. Remember those? I paid attention because I felt involved and thought it was a show – from theme song to opening credits and that talk show-y feel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zn4cfVU7llw Looking back, these spots were a bit cheesy and intros & outros were trippy, but they worked on me personally. I remember recalling “Never let the caller know you’re alone” whenever I answered the phone. These PSAs addressed the viewer, “What should she do?” and stare right at you. Yup, PSAs need to give us attention because that’s what we like ;)

      Reply
  8. Howie

    Susan- I guess you don’t just rock on Twitter!

    This was a great write up. The problem with anti-drug PSA’s and Health Classes taught in school is they lie to kids. Once one lie is exposed, trust is toast. The first lie is that its hoodlum and bad kids who do drugs. That some stranger on the corner is going to offer you drugs. In fact it will be your friend who comes from a good family. A family your parents like.. The second big lie is how bad its going to be when you try something. Yet the fact is anything you try is going to be freaking awesome when you try it (for the most time with possible exceptions).

    They call Pot the gateway drug. Its not a gateway drug in the way they preach. Its a gateway to exposing the lie you have been told. Then you start thinking what other lies have been told. Kids are not dumb. This is no different from abstinence only programs.

    The sad thing is there are constructive and destructive drugs all lumped together. And the destructive drugs, the worst ones that send you to rehab or jail if you get in deep, destroy families and careers (cocaine, crystal meth, crack, heroin) will feel great when you try them the first time. And hey you tried pot and that felt great and didn’t destroy your life and hey I am too young to know better yet. Not a good situation.

    Worse is today kids now have more chemicals out there that us Gen Xers didn’t have around. Ones that can be destructive too. But once the lie is exposed its hard to win the logic war again.

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      Thanks, Howie. Excellent reminders that you have provided that many PSAs have failed to address.

      You’re right, kids and tweens are not dumb (and are also super imaginative, which I envy). Many of the PSAs of our past did not provide many of the goods, lacking in the somethin,’ somethin’ dept.

      Those behind anti-drug PSAs should take your comment and place it on a nice, yellow Post-It as a reminder to address the bigger and deeper picture so viewers can receive more meaning behind the message on the appropriate medium (cue slow, fade-in image Marshall McLuhan).

      Reply
  9. Steph

    A great read indeed!
    you know, I’m still not sure why drugs are bad ’cause those darn PSAs never really worked out for me
    I don’t recall PSAs above except don’t you put it in your mouth nahuh! don’t you stick it up your nose? nahuh! :-)
    I’m looking forward to reading future articles. keep ‘em coming!

    Reply
  10. Katerina

    What a refreshing read Susan! This article got me thinking about my childhood /upbringing and exposure to drugs. I remember seeing all these psas except for the last one – its not like it would have made a difference as I was never into the Fragglerock / Sesame Street / Muffets scene; so I probably would have switched the channel. Its funny that you have the Rachel Leigh ad as the most memorable as I too found it effective but not because of what it does to your brain but because I thought it would make me go crazy and smash things! As a TMNG fan I adore the commercial, but I feel like as a child the message gets lost for two reasons. One, I would assume it was about bullying and two, I doubt I would have known what marijuana was. I probably would have thought it was a cigarette.

    I never really found tv psa’s to be effective as the majority of viewers switch channels during commercial breaks. If I wanted to get a message across I would personally consider who my target was and what the best medium to get the message across.

    If you want to get the message to young children – tv commercials aren’t very helpful as children don’t really understand what the message is. I would suggest incorporating the messages into books (strange but we all know the stories of Little Red Riding Hood and Goldilocks and Three Bears right?) But lets get serious that is not practical is it? But like you said Susan the last psa was pretty good as it does involve children and they can sing the song over and over again

    If you want to get the message to pre teens and teens – I would try two things. One I would try to single them out. Flood them with all the possible excuses to do drugs and hope they would somehow relate to one excuse and quit. Two I would probably show a split screen of a life on drugs and a sober life on fast forward and show them the difference possibly totaling the $ they spent and how their good looks will deteriorate.

    Sorry for the long response but your article got me thinking which in turn has me writing! I look forward to reading more of your articles!

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      Give me as much depth as you wish. I appreciate it!

      Nice suggestions. You brought up a good point when you mentioned to show them how much money lost. Exactly what more PSAs need to feature – to allow the viewers to think about themselves in a heated moment, “Oh no! I’m soooo freakin’ hungry and I can’t even afford small fries?” Connection is soooo important. We watch certain shows (like Power Rangers) to connect with characters, why couldn’t PSAs of the past do the same?

      Thanks, Katerina.

      Reply
  11. Nasir

    Another great post Susan!

    You raise some interesting points regarding these public service announcements that we were exposed to growing up. In retrospect, some of them only left me feeling somewhat afraid or confused rather than informed on certain attributes regarding drugs. The ones you provided here are definitely good ones … if you want the viewer to remember them. But do they teach us enough to not handle drugs? The PSA brought to us by MADD was certainly simple and demonstrated to us what drinking and driving does. As for the others, I feel it’s left up to the viewer for interpretation. I must add, up to today I can remember all the words to the jolly song the blue puppets sing. I even sing it to myself in the shower, to remind myself to not eat the bar of soap.

    It’s like i said once before, I’ve seen memorable ones but nothing suitable to get the message across. I hope somewhere along the way future PSAs will find some way to integrate specific information as well as creativity.

    Great post again Susan. Another creative forum :)

    Reply
    • Susan Hua

      “…As for the others, I feel it’s left up to the viewer for interpretation.” With that said, I was in middle school when I saw these spots. I just didn’t care enough to interpret these ads, it was too much for a tween to handle. The PSA with R.L.Cook was a bit nuts, but I didn’t really get it, nor did I really care.

      Since you’re an aspiring Art Director, Nasir, perhaps these comments will come in handy when you work with your team in the future ;)

      Thank you for the kind words!

      Reply
  12. Bad News Bears

    I think for the most part these PSAs do not work because the focus on fear instead of education. For the most part being a child is about deciding what you want to do and discovering what the world around you is like. When you rely on fear it could easily result in a child saying “let me try this thing for myself and see if its actually as scary as they say it is.”

    These commercials do not take into account the reality that some of these children may live in. Are they targeting the youth that live in environments where drug addiction is not an issue? Or are they targeting the child that sees the affects of drugs on a daily basis? Depending on the prior experiences of the viewer vastly different conclusions can result.

    It is sad to say that the media is replacing the role of the family. PSAs should not be the social institution that says not to do drugs rather it should be the parents that educate their children on the effects. Since most parents are working, and many are taking on multiple shifts, the television has become one of the main sources of education for many children outside of school. With commercials we can change the channel or leave to get a sandwich but a parent in your face explaining what drugs will do to you is hard to ignore, especially at a young age. The PSAs take a complex issue such as drug abuse and condenses it into fear tactic that I do not believe truly works.

    Reply

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