Mixed Messages


The other day, I passed a car with a bumper sticker that read "DARE to Think for Yourself." At first, I thought it was a satirical jab at Drug Abuse Resistance Education, the mindlessly puritanical program that is omnipresent in American schools despite a lack of evidence that it does any good.

Upon reflection, though, I wasn't sure how to interpret the exhortation on the sticker. DARE purports to teach kids how to resist "peer pressure," so its promoters probably do see themselves as encouraging independent thinking.

According to this view, only a true iconoclast accepts the government's claims about drugs at face value. That conviction, of course, makes the bumper sticker even funnier; the only question is whether the humor was intended. I'm inclined to think it wasn't, since public discussion of the drug issue is rife with messages that subvert themselves.

Look down in the men's room of certain restaurants, and you will see "Just Say No to Drugs" imprinted on the perforated plastic liner at the bottom of the urinal. Leaf through a catalog of school supplies, and you will come across various items bearing similar slogans, including the doormats on which kids trample as they enter and exit the building.

In a similar vein, the Associated Press recently reported an embarrassing incident involving a Plainview, N.Y., business called the Bureau for At-Risk Youth. Last fall, the company marked Drug Prevention Week by distributing special pencils to hundreds of schools around the country.

"Too Cool to Do Drugs," the pencils proclaimed. But after repeated sharpening, the message became "Cool to Do Drugs" and then simply "Do Drugs."

The problem–discovered, aptly enough, by a fourth-grader in Ticonderoga, N.Y.–led to a recall of the defective product. The A.P. story said, "a new batch of pencils will have the message written in the opposite direction, so when they are sharpened, they [will] read 'Too Cool to Do' and finally 'Too Cool.'"

Too Cool to Do? Apparently, the new pencils will encourage kids to be teachers instead of drug addicts.

Sometimes, anti-drug messages subvert themselves less directly. A memorable scene in the 1989 film Drugstore Cowboy shows the protagonist, Matt Dillon, laughing as he watches an anti-drug commercial on TV. This sort of reaction is not limited to junkies who knock over pharmacies.

When the Partnership for a Drug-Free America started airing its "This is your brain on drugs" ad in the 1980s, the eye-catching image of a frying egg must have seemed awfully clever. But the spot quickly generated a rash of lampoons–including a T-shirt announcing, "This is your brain on drugs with a side of bacon"–that neutralized any power the message may have had to scare people.

The Partnership clearly did not learn anything from that experience because its latest batch of ads–cosponsored by the federal government and financed with your tax dollars–includes a spot that plays off the fried-egg theme: A sexy young woman who exemplifies the skinny "heroin chic" look smashes an egg and wrecks a kitchen with a frying pan while screaming about the damage done by drug use.

The Partnership has thus taken a concept that was not exactly subtle to begin with and transformed it into a very loud, over-the-top bit of hectoring. If the spot has not already been mocked on a sketch comedy show, it's only because broadcasters have promised to reinforce the government's ad campaign, which is bringing them a lot of money.

The combination of titillation and moralism in the frying-pan ad is reminiscent of the old paperbacks that warned people away from drugs even while treating them to a salacious peak at the demi-monde. "A cheap and evil girl sets a hopped-up killer against a city," says the cover of William Irish's Marihuana, which shows a menacing man smoking a joint over the prone body of a woman in a low-cut red dress.

Books with titles like Reefer Girl, Dream Club and The Pusher featured similar themes and illustrations. A sample of the covers is available as a set of magnets at a gift shop near my apartment.

So if the folks at DARE, the Bureau for At-Risk Youth and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America ever wonder whether their work will amount to anything, they should take heart: Today's anti-drug propaganda is tomorrow's camp.