The Magazine

ADVERTISING INEPTITUDE

Jul 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 44 • By JAMES F.X. O'GARA and JOHN P. WALTERS
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IN ONE OF THE MOST COMPELLING TV ADS in the White House's new anti-drug campaign, 13-year-old Oakland native Kevin Scott talks about the daily nightmare he faces walking home from school past open-air drug markets. "The dealers are scared of police, but they aren't scared of me. And they don't take 'no' for an answer." The concluding voiceover intones: "To Kevin Scott and all the other kids who take the long way home, we hear you. Don't give up."

Let's hope Kevin and "all the other kids" weren't watching July 9 when President Clinton essentially told them his latest effort, a $ 1 billion taxpayer-funded advertising campaign, won't focus on those drug dealers at all. "There are some places where kids are subject to more temptation than others. There are some blocks where there are more drug dealers than others. All of us have to deal with that," said the president, "but we know that the more young people fear drugs, the more they disapprove of them, the less likely they are to use them." Added drug czar Barry McCaffrey, "If you want a war on drugs, you have to sit down at your own kitchen table and talk to your children." Presumably after they've dodged the drug dealers on the way home.

Two days later, in his Saturday radio address, President Clinton had more drug news. But again, he made no mention of the ongoing scandal of open-air drug markets. No, the message for Kevin and "all the other kids" was that the federal government is going to put a few more million tax dollars into the notoriously under-performing drug-treatment system. The Kevins of America might be forgiven for wondering if the adults are really paying attention.

In truth, there is nothing wrong with an ad campaign designed to change youthful attitudes and engage parents and responsible adults. Such campaigns have been effective in the past (when they were funded largely by private contributions) -- but only in conjunction with a concerted national effort to target drug use and trafficking on all levels. This time, alas, the ads are being rolled out as a substitute for the national leadership that the president, his drug czar, his Attorney General, and others have failed to supply.

Sen. John Ashcroft astutely said of the new ad campaign: "I do believe that parents need to talk to children, but let's do what government is supposed to do and make drug use risky." And where were the rest of our national leaders? Well, Newt Gingrich joined the president at the gala ad-campaign kickoff and proclaimed himself "delighted . . . at what I hope will be a decisive campaign in saving our country and our children from drugs." This is the same Republican leader who for more than a year has been promising to transform our national anti-drug effort into a real war, "the way we fought World War II."

No serious person can believe that even the best ad campaign is an appropriate centerpiece for the effort to reverse current trends. Consider: Since 1992, drug use by young people has increased more rapidly than at any time since modern measurement began in the 1970s. Never has the age of first use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or LSD been lower. Never has the number of emergency-room cases related to drugs been higher -- and the data go back more than two decades. Never has the availability of drugs been greater, with record low prices and record high purities. Never have the forces for the wholesale legalization of drug sales and use been more powerful. Never has an administration established a worse record with regard to the drug problem, and never has one been held less accountable.

Here's the problem: Drug use can be intensely pleasurable, so pleasurable it can lead the user, in all too many cases, to sacrifice everything else for the sake of obtaining and using drugs. The attractiveness of drugs can be countered only by moral precepts that are enforced when they are violated. If those in authority do not address the issue seriously, they teach that drug use is not a serious matter. And if they say drug use is intolerable but fail to act effectively to stop and punish those who sell and use drugs, their actions convey a much more powerful lesson than their words.

Reducing the supply of drugs is critically important because drug use -- whether by non-addicts or addicts -- is fueled by their very ubiquity. A nation that permits wide availability of dangerous drugs is sending its citizens an unmistakable message: We are largely indifferent to drug use. The wide availability of drugs entails the normalization of drug use. The harsh reality is that drug use begins in experimentation, with a substantial portion of users escalating to addiction, which often ends in death. A free, democratic society ought to display a special intolerance for those things that undermine the capacity of its citizens to be self-governing.