Is Breaking Bad an Ad for Meth?



"Breaking Bad blamed for shocking rise in crystal meth usage," said the headline over a November 3 story in The Telegraph. The subhead explained that "a leading academic claims the critically acclaimed US show Breaking Bad 'instantly makes people curious' about crystal meth."

In a recent Vice piece, Max Daly debunks the claim that Breaking Bad, the excellent AMC series about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth maestro, made speed more popular in the U.K. Daly notes that "there is no 'shocking' rise of crystal meth use in Britain" and that a single academic's idle speculation is the only evidence that people are experimenting with meth because they want to be just like the tweakers on Breaking Bad. Here is how Ellis Cashmore, a professor of media, culture, and sport at Staffordshire University, explains this alleged phenomenon:

Although the show does not go out to glamorize the drug, its very inclusion promotes interest in that substance. The fact it is a central premise to almost the entire series would serve to boost this interest for people who perhaps had not encountered it before. One of the central protagonists, Jessie, played by Aaron Paul, is portrayed as a drug addict, and he is now a Hollywood A-Lister. He is a bit of a sex symbol. The fact this character who we grow to love is taking crystal meth instantly makes people curious.

We live in a hedonistic generation where people are seeking pleasure from various sources, and increasingly these are to be found in the most illicit forms. Even if a TV show, like Breaking Bad, portrays drugs in a negative aspect and showing its most destructive side, it will still appeal to somebody. Showing the horrendous impact of crystal meth can have a boomerang effect and cause curiosity among some viewers who might think "that must be good."

I'm not surprised following the success of Breaking Bad that we have news of a surge in the use of methamphetamine. The fact millions of people have watched the show and been entertained by it almost instantly glamorizes its subject matter, whether deliberate or not.

Cashmore's claim that viewers "grow to love" Jesse Pinkman makes me wonder if he has actually seen the show. I eagerly watched every episode and never felt anything remotely like love for Aaron Paul's character. Pity, disgust, and annoyance were my initial reactions, and even as Jesse matured and displayed a latent streak of decency, I found him less interesting than Walter White, Bryan Cranston's meth kingpin. But maybe that's just me. 

Daly rightly criticizes Cashmore's simplistic "monkey see, monkey do" understanding of how people react to popular entertainment (which is similar to the view of a Texas prosecutor whom Ed Krayewski came across last year):

If he's onto something, why hasn't Mad Men quadrupled the number of cigarette smokers? Why aren't we all street hustlers after watching The Wire? Surely the nation is awash with sword-wielding knights after four seasons of Games of Thrones? Luckily, the human brain, after the age of about ten, doesn't work like this. 

And if Cashmore is onto something, why didn't meth use in the United States rise during Breaking Bad's run? According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, past-month use of methamphetamine was less common in 2013, when the series ended, than it was in 2008, when the series started. Finally, if "showing the horrendous impact of crystal meth can have a boomerang effect," shouldn't we blame the government's absurdly hyperbolic anti-meth propaganda for piquing interest in the drug?

Breaking Bad may not have had a measurable effect on drug use, but it did have a noticeable impact on journalists, who like to imagine that life imitates art. A few days after The Telegraph claimed the show had created a fashion for speed, the Fox station in Colorado Springs sought to correct the notion that Breaking Bad created the drug itself. "Before 'Breaking Bad' even became a hit television series," Fox 21 noted, "meth labs and major drug busts were going on in Colorado Springs."

[Thanks to Judith Posch for the Fox 21 link.]