Propaganda films come in many shapes and sizes. Their flexibility is precisely what qualifies them as propaganda, able to be both subliminal and overt. The latter bit, their standing as a “film,” is a bit more generous, as even the most fully-thought out PSA narrative has little interest in anything resembling an arc (though any character approached with a joint is usually presented as entering a Homerian moral odyssey).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the intensifying War on Drugs set its sights on television. The medium had been around for some forty years by that point, gaining public influence in the 1950s and dramatically shifting cultural optics through much of the 1970s. But by the 1990s, television had become the de facto medium of the younger generation. Newer, alternative networks such as MTV became more than just a push-back against the big four stations; they created an aesthetic in their own right.
As a result, the anti-drug programing of the era began to alter its model, shifting away from the short-film format and into smaller 30-second spots, meant to air in between programming during commercial breaks. By the late 1980s, PSAs would air so frequently that at their peak anti-drug organizations would spend nearly $1 million a day on air time.
Below are some of that decade’s most egregious examples of moral telegraphing, using everything from musical puppets to well-worn clichés in an effort to get kids to think twice before saying yes to drugs. The spots move quick — most cap at less than a minute — which serve as a subtle tactic. For the most part they’re just ridiculous, but they each manage to be the ‘best’ at something.
Most Insane Depiction of a Teenage Party
In this spot, a white kid with a rad puka shell necklace experiences his own private Groundhog’s Day when he keeps coming across the same stoned kid at a house party, offering him a hit of his weed. In each exchange, he comes up with a different excuse, always exiting the room and ending up right back where he started. At the tail end, our hero tries out the truth, and finally breaks the spell once he’s affirmed his stance. “It’s just not for me,” he says as he leaves his personal hell and enters literally the sickest house party I’ve ever seen a group of teenagers throw.
The party is a straight-up rave in someone’s living room. One girl even projects Y2K fantasy vibes with a purple bob wig and white midriff-bearing shirt. How this kid got invited I’ll never know, and his passing judgement on the stoners in the next room is a bit of a cold move, considering he is probably 15 minutes away from dropping ecstasy and having a heart-to-heart while in line for the bathroom. But to each his own...
Most Confusing Message
I had to watch this spot three times to understand what exactly was going on, but as of right now my interpretation is that three teens are on that Sense 8 tip and occupy different bodies but maybe share one brain, cognitively connected by the fact that none of them smoke weed?
Either that or the spot has fallen victim to some weird fusion of tone poem and ‘90s GAP ad. The disgruntled youth and the off-brown filter really manage to conjure up both nostalgia for grunge and the smell of a sewer drain. Also, I couldn’t get over the fact that in ten years, these “uncool kids” would probably be working at their former high school.
Most Brutal Double Entendre
“Don’t Put It In Your Mouth”
This spot manages to commit two heinous acts at once: rip off the Muppets and also accidentally create a jingle that doubles as a screed against oral sex. Over the course of two minutes, the fake-Muppets manage to utter the lines: “Don’t you stuff it in your face / though it might be good to eat” and “don’t you put it in your mouth / until you ask someone you love”— and manage to look absolutely deranged while doing so. It’s unclear why this was the angle the Concerned Children’s Advisory felt they needed to take — zeroing in not on drugs, but on the mouth as a danger zone. Regardless, jah bless the creative journey these songwriters went on. Unfortunately, though, the jingle doesn’t not slap.
Worst Example of a School Bully
In the spot, Joey is minding his own business at his locker when a school bully approaches him and asks if he wants to smoke, which is framed as a vicious attack but is honestly a pretty thoughtful and inclusive gesture. I think the locker functions as kind of a red herring, since most would assume Joey is about to get pushed in. Instead, when Joey shows even a second’s hesitation, the bully starts doing the most embarrassing chicken impression in the goddamn hallway.
Unless this is LaGuardia High, I’m pretty sure your social stock would plummet the second you go full-method in a chicken impression, but somehow it’s Joey who has to explain himself. We suddenly zoom out and the incident is being watched by a grade school class. The kids are asked (by the Ninja Turtles?) what Joey should do, and the consensus they come to is that he needs to “get out of there,” which, drugs notwithstanding, is absolutely solid advice when you have someone literally bok-ing in your face.
Most Accurate Depiction of a Stoned Conversation
So I know that this spot is supposed to dissuade us from wanting to purse our lips and place just the tip of a joint in, but “Choose” may literally feature the single best showcase of what it’s actually like to be high. In one scene, our two white protagonists manage to capture the absolute disaster that is a stoned conversation.
Usually, weed-fueled heart-to-hearts are depicted as slow moving and giggle-infused. But rarely do high conversations actually involve ruminating on life’s great mysteries in a surfer accent. In reality, it mostly involves the minutia of daily life broken up into incomprehensible segments and non sequiturs. In the case of this PSA, the stream of consciousness ramblings about paint colors feels pretty dead on.
The spot is narrated by this weird, vaporwave nightmare who is definitely just a guy in a green screen onesie. He breaks down all the facts and falsehoods about getting high, and even drops this truth bomb: “The chemicals in [marijuana] can actually make you afraid to talk to other people, even your friends.” Even though he neglects to include a single bit of scientific evidence, it was actually extremely comforting hearing someone put into words what I often (read: every fucking time I smoke) think is a unique paranoia. I know that this wasn’t exactly the goal of the spot, but it’s now my gold standard.
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