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#TBT on THC: Michael Jordan Was the Most Insidious Tool of the War on Drugs

In 1987, two titans of inundation, McDonald’s and Michael Jordan, each more quintessentially American than the other, collaborated on an anti-drug PSA that was truly unforgettable.

by Rod Bastanmehr

by Rod Bastanmehr

America's sordid history with drugs haunts the country to this day, infecting much of the deep-seeded tensions regarding race and class, not to mention the nation's historically radical generation gap. In our weekly column, #TBT on THC, we parcel through the canon of American anti-drug propaganda of yesteryear — from “Reefer Madness” to “Just Say No” and D.A.R.E. — and analyze their content and context from the perspective of the present.

Celebrity endorsements are capitalism’s bread and butter. They distill ideology and political sentiment into a cult of personality, and use fame as a conduit for a number of things: aspirationalism, envy, moral renegotiation. More than anything else, fame is also a mercenary for hire, its target whatever you need it to be.

In 1987, two titans of inundation, McDonald’s and Michael Jordan, each more quintessentially American than the other, collaborated on an anti-drug PSA that has since become one of the era’s most frequently cited. The minute-long video aired on May 26, 1987, right after the ABC premiere of Cracked Up, a TV movie about a seventeen-year-old star athlete who becomes addicted to crack cocaine after falling for an older woman (think The Graduate but with literal crack).

In the PSA, which aired directly after the movie, Jordan urges teenagers to be smart and keep their distance from drugs, and sternly tells those already in the midst of dabbling to “stop it and get some help.” The spot opens with Jordan against a stone-textured backdrop, rocking a cream suit and power tie, and somehow manages to call McDonald’s a “restaurant” with a straight face. What can’t this dude do?

“Think about this,” he starts. “Many of you using drugs out there now are under 18. Do you realize that at 18, you’ve only lived one-fourth of your life? When you’re using drugs, you’re only cheating yourself out of the chance to find out who you really can be. And, believe me, if you don’t use drugs, you can be just about anything you want to be.”

The screen then fades out slowly, before bafflingly fading back in on Jordan’s face again, making the spot feel like someone inching out of a bad party, only to then be pulled back into a conversation by the front door. “Listen, you got at least three-fourths of your life to go,” Jordan says. “That’s three more lifetimes to you [Editor’s note: ???], so don’t blow it. Don’t do drugs. If you’re doing it, stop it. Get some help.”

Besides the redundant closing note, the spot is brief and effective. This isn’t your high school gym teacher telling you to keep clean and find out what makes you soar (though at times it does sound a little like it might be your math teacher). No, this is Michael Jordan, telling you that he doesn’t do drugs, and that if you don’t do drugs, you can be whatever you want to be. Thus, according to the transitive property, Michael Jordan is saying that you, too, could be Michael Jordan. You just have to stay clean.

The video was part of the McDonald’s-sponsored “Get It Straight” program, a national drug awareness effort that culminated in campaigns across the country at numerous McDonald’s franchises. There is little campaign material left to track down on the internet, though this Maureen Dowd profile of Nancy Regan in the New York Times during the tail end of her husband’s first term opens with the First Lady posing with a McDonald’s employee, wearing a “Get It Straight” shirt. [Editor’s Note Cont: Isn’t it funny that years later Maureen Dowd would publicly disclose a story about losing her chill after trying a weed brownie for the first time as a grown woman?]

The confluence of these images is not accidental. Nancy Reagan was a major proponent of the “Just Say No” campaign that took the youth demo by storm, and her pathological attempt to preserve antiquated American morals in amber — with little to no nuance, at that — put her firmly in the center of the country’s growing discussion surrounding the drug epidemic. The only two things more justifiably American in 1987 outside of the Reagans were McDonald’s and Chicago Bulls MVP Michael Jordan. These varied symbols of late-century Americana — the political, the corporate, the populist — were the perfect mix in the lead-up to the culture wars of the following decade. Together, this triad bridged the gap between race, class, and age to unnerving effect.

Jordan is, without contest, the single most effectively marketed American athlete of all-time. To this day, 15 years after his final retirement, his name is still something of an adjective, up there with Einstein. His association with McDonald’s was an act of brilliant American synergy, but also highlighted the unique autonomy Jordan had in American culture. Much like OJ Simpson, pre-murder trial, and to a degree Thriller-era Michael Jackson, Jordan was a black public figure who was allowed to navigate the world largely undefined by race. Jordan remained relatively apolitical during his tenure as the world’s most famous face; his presence on the Forbes list was, in a sense, seemingly radical enough. But his participation in projects that orbited the War on Drugs makes for a bizarre optic.

No mind that one of America’s finest athletes saw fit to collaborate with a fast food conglomerate dedicated to keeping health a low American priority. Here was arguably one of the most famous black Americans — perhaps, at the time, the most famous person on the planet — and he was hocking a generic script meant to further pad the narrative surrounding the American drug war. While, statistically speaking, white Americans use drugs at almost an equal rate, black Americans are admitted to state prisons over five times more regularly than whites, largely thanks to drug laws. According to the ACLU, in some states black Americans make up 90% of drug-related imprisonment cases. Statistics reached these fevered heights during the Reagan years, a result of the War on Drugs focusing on poor neighborhoods within the inner-city. Jordan himself may have been excluded from that stultifying narrative, but as one of the most famous black Americans of the 20th century, it makes his place within the propaganda machine particularly ironic. Ten years later, Biggie — a very different American iconic — would sum up the binary best: "If I wasn't in the rap game / I'd probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game / Because the streets is a short stop / Either you're slingin’ crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot."

The content of this PSA is relatively tame; less propaganda than plea. It functions as a direct address to the youth who worship the ground Jordan walks on, and forgoes any attempt to scare them straight with less-than-accurate facts. But the fascinating point of contact here is the idea of the War on Drugs becoming an advertising movement. Before acquiring PR autonomy through social media, celebrities would often be used as a means of moral telegraphing. The form has varied: stars like Bob Hope, who would often go abroad to entertain the troops, were always serving a purpose for the people back home, too, giving American policy a co-sign. Jordan’s lending his voice to an anti-drug movement is naturally a good use of his celebrity. But the nuance of the movement’s tactics, the ones not portrayed in television spots, directly affected countless people who looked up to Jordan, particularly minorities. His being apolitical was a personal choice; there wasn’t too much grandstanding about race relations on Jordan’s part during the tumultuous early ‘90s, so it’s unclear just how much of this PSA was corporate pandering and how much was his own apathy. But the use of Jordan as a symbol of American values was, in retrospect, both inevitable and suspect. He may have been speaking to the kids, but it was the world that was watching.

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Rod Bastanmehr

Rod Bastanmehr is an arts and culture writer and one-half of the GOOD FRIENDS podcast. His work has appeared in VICE, The Atlantic, Salon, Slate, and the LA Review of Books.



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