Public service announcements of the War on Drugs have long been lampooned, and for good reason. Nonetheless, many have accepted such advertisements as a relatively benign, if irritating, collateral consequence of watching network television. Not unlike obnoxious pitches for ShamWow, we shrug our shoulders, chuckle, and move on. As rates of drug abuse have only increased throughout our long War on Drugs, we know that anti-drug PSA’s are at best an ineffective tactic and a poor use of taxpayer’s money. A closer look at anti-crack PSA’s in the Crack Era suggest that drug warrior TV spots were hardly benign. In many ways, this anti-drug effort proved to be socially irresponsible, misleading, and quite possibly, counterproductive.
If TV news of the period had not made it abundantly clear, PSA’s of the period reaffirmed popular assumptions that crack was an urban nonwhite problem which threatened to spill into suburban districts and victimize white youth. Despite the reality that crack was indeed an urban problem, the target audience of most PSA’s appear to be white suburban youth—potential victims. A litany of mainstream white celebrities offer their voices to variations of the same message; beware or the dangerous pusher and “just say no.” Kirk Cameron advises youth, “Come on, say no to drugs.” Bruce Willis also invokes the “just say no” tagline in his PSA, reminding children sternly to “be the boss” and make their own decisions. In the same year (1987), Willis appeared in a series of advertisements for Seagram’s Liquor clad in a white Miami Vice suit with multiple women on his arms. The tagline of the Seagram’s advertisement: “This is where the fun starts.”
In addition to offering an oversimplified message for drug avoidance most spots also advance the myth that one-time crack use kills. Just ask Pee-Wee Herman, “It’s the most addictive kind of cocaine and it can kill you. So every time you use it you can risk dying. Doing it with crack isn’t just wrong, it could be dead wrong.” Before he took to talking to chairs in public, Clint Eastwood also joined the fray as he channeled his best Dirty Harry. “You see this cute little vial here, that’s crack, rock cocaine, the most addictive form. It can kill you.” As with a series of PSA’s geared against crack, the postscript of the spot reads “Don’t even try it. The thrill can kill.” Brat Packer Ally Sheedy appeared in the same line of ads reminding Breakfast Club fans again “crack kills.” Other ads feature an undertaker and a businessman’s funeral, purportedly all casualties of crack. This myth marred the period, advanced most prominently by the overdose of basketball star Len Bias. Unfortunately, Bias was hardly a first-time user, nor did he overdose on crack, but rather, high-grade cocaine.Read More »
“I think that if you say something three times out loud, people take it as fact. And also, I think there are certain ideas that people want to believe, that really fit in with cultural stereotypes, and it’s hard to get rid of those”– Claire Coles
A friend recently posted a Retro Report video about the crack baby myth on my facebook page with the comment, “you called this, like, a year ago.” Another friend emailed me the link and a note, “always ahead of the game, you are.” While I appreciate my friends’ propers, I should point out that people have been debunking the crack baby myth for over twenty years. The correction just can’t seem to stick. If I called anything, it’s that sad fact: we just can’t let go of the crack baby.
As I argued before, one reason why we can’t let go of this myth is that it has the structure of a conspiracy theory, one in which the conclusion is sacrosanct even if the evidence is not yet identified. We have such agile, creative minds, and we really want the crack baby to be real because it has the ring of truthiness. Just the other day, a friend tried to grok the crack baby that wasn’t and concluded that crack still did something – even if that was just to stand in for all the other awful consequences of using crack and, of course, it’s true: some of those awful consequences can have very damaging effects on a human being. I had to agree: in that way, yes, one could say that there is such a thing as a crack baby.
This is not the first time the New York Times has run a story about what it called (in 2009) “The Epidemic That Wasn’t.” A cynic might wonder if maybe debunking the myth has become almost as good a story as the crack baby him or herself, even if it does require a journalistic mea culpa. Perhaps this is a second reason for the persistence of the crack baby myth: saying there is no crack baby makes for some great copy.
Editors’ Note: This is the third and final of Michael Durfee’s reports from the recent ADHS conference. We’re grateful to him for his thoughtful blog posts–hopefully this won’t be the last Points readers hear from Michael. Read his first two conference dispatches here and here.
Popular Culture and the Drug Wars
On Sunday, a group of enterprising graduate students presented portions of their dissertation’s in progress to those interested in the often overlapping worlds of popular culture and the war on drugs. Robert Beach adjusted our gaze to the subculture of comic books and superhero’s, chronicling the work of Earl Albert Rowell, a relatively obscure San Francisco based writer and anti-drug lecturer. Rowell created a superhero named David Dare, cast as a globe-trotting anti-narcotics crusader. In one tale, Dare is on the trail of morphine peddlers. In another, Dare finds himself at the locus of all evil and depravity—the marijuana den. Most interesting however, proved Beach’s assessment of the emergence of the comic book superhero. For Beach, the superhero came to light amidst a host of institutional crisis addressed in superhero crusades: Police officers, for example, continuously fought the stigma of corruption; doctors often fought against their association with quacks and other apocryphal practitioners. Most notably, the federal government‘s enforcers, embodied in the Prohibition agents of the era, seemed to highlight the inability of national governments to legislate recreational activities. All told, superhero’s like David Dare served as vehicles to criticize institutional failure and correct the complicated problems mortal human beings simply could not manage themselves.
Following Beach’s treatment of David Dare, I presented on the often overlooked role of Len Bias in the crack panic of 1986. Read More »