Shocking, Stigmatizing New Anti-Opioid Ads: Just Say No To Drugs 2018?
Four new public service announcement (PSA) anti-opioid ads released last week feature actors portraying people who go to extreme and shocking lengths to support their opioid addiction.
These acts include disturbing images of one man breaking his own back, another man breaking his hand using a hammer, and a woman driving into a dumpster – all of which claim to show the dark side of opioid use and the painful extent people will go to feed their habit.
The PSAs are purported to be based on the real stories of actual opioid addicts and are said to be part of a proposed $.6 billion war on the opioid epidemic.
Since their debut on June 7, the ads have been compared to the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign from the 1980’s, but those comparisons have not always a positive one. The PSAs have received mixed reviews from drug policy organizations – some views appear to support the ad’s theme, while others condemn them to mere “shock value,” labeling them as “misleading,” among other negative connotations.
The campaign was the product of an anti-opioid effort known as “The Truth About Opioids,” or a collaboration between the Truth Initiative, the Ad Council, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), and the Trump administration.
Other partners include Amazon, Facebook, Google, and YouTube, all of which have donated airtime to the PSAs, a combined effort said to be worth around $30 million.
Advocates for the ads, such as the president of Partnership for Drug-Free Kids (PDF), Fred Mensch, have touted the campaign as having “the potential to generate a dialogue between parents and kids on this complex health issue.”
Also, director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance extolled some aspects of the campaign for offering useful information but noted that the PSAs portray “really extreme cases. It’s all about self-harm to seek opioids, and they also end with the same ‘fact’ about how dependence can start after five days, and that’s just an incredible simplification.”
Others, such as Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, have referred to the anti-opioid PSAs as “the 21st-century version of the egg-in-the-frying-pan” ads from the eighties, an effort, by the way, which was created by the PDFK.
“We don’t need shock value to fight the overdose crisis. We need empathy, connection and hope for people struggling with opioids. The White House missed an opportunity to combat stigma and stereotypes, portraying people who use opioids as irrational and self-destructive.”
The campaign message appears to reflect what President Trump referred to in March as a “large-scale rollout of commercials” that would function to increase awareness about opioid addiction.
During this time, Trump stated that he supported “spending a lot of money on great commercials showing how bad [opioid addiction] is.” He added that the administration would make the ads “very, very bad commercials” that would scare audiences “from ending up like the people commercials.”
In May, an anonymous source with a connection to the ads was quoted by Axios as saying that Trump “thinks you have to engage and enrage.”
Still, other experts feel the PSAs are stigmatizing, disturbing, off-target, and reinforce negative stereotypes of drug users – not unlike those portrayed in the “Just Say No” campaign in the 1980s.
Each ad’s main character issues the same statement: “I didn’t know they’d be this addictive. I didn’t know how far I’d go to get more.” But the message may be lost on those who find the subjects featured in PSAs pitiful and worthy of disgust – namely, people who are not battling a substance addiction or are close to someone who is.
By inciting fear about how addictive these drugs are, the ads appear to increase the stigma surrounding drug abuse (albeit unintentional) implying that it is irresponsible and shame-worthy. The result of this stigma is to delegate users to the outskirts of society instead of providing useful resources and hope.
Stefanie Jones, director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance, stated that the campaign does nothing to reduce the stigma that surrounds drug use:
“It’s disingenuous and misleading to take one extreme account—or four, as it were—and present that as the average experienceWe need to be unbiased. We need to be non-judgmental. And this sort of emotional approach flies in the face of all of that.”
Jones also pointed out that in each ad’s story, painkillers were needed, an issue that the campaign does not seem to address. Moreover, how did these subjects continue to obtain pain medication beyond recommended guidelines for acute pain?
Indeed, these anti-opioid ads convey a message that places blame on the people who are addicted and commit self-harm in order to receive more drugs, but the people supplying the drugs (i.e. pharmaceutical companies, health providers, etc.) apparently get a free pass.
Instead of using scare tactics such as shocking PSAs and threating street dealers with the death penalty, it may behoove the Trump administration to examine the overall structural issues that have contributed to the drug epidemic.
In other words, the drug crisis won’t abate until the government starts holding drug makers and physicians equally accountable for their role in the rising number of opioid dependents and overdoses that have grown exponentially in the last two decades.
Get Help Today
If you or someone you love is abusing substances, please seek treatment as soon as possible. There are many resources available to help you or your loved one.
Please call us today at 877-497-6180 for a free consultation.
~ Nathalee G. Serrels, M.A., Psychology