Pop-Culture Legacy of Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' Campaign

Reagan lent her name to an assortment of causes, but none more worthless than "Just Say No"

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Nancy Reagan at a November 1985 "Just Say No" rally in Oakland, California. Paul Sakuma/AP

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan died Sunday at age 94. Reagan lent her name to an assortment of causes while her husband was in office — and to Alzheimer's research after he'd left — but none more famously or worthlessly than the anti-drug "Just Say No" campaign. 

The slogan was borne of an achingly earnest — and, critics would later contend, entirely irresponsible— answer Nancy Reagan once gave a young girl who asked how to respond if someone offered her drugs. "You just say no," Reagan replied.

That was in 1982; the following year, she tapped New York ad agency Needham, Harper & Steers to build a full-fledged advertising offensive to combat the spread of drug use. 

Today, drug awareness campaigns like "What's Your Anti-Drug?" and "Above the Influence" are common, but it was "Just Say No" that paved their way. At the time, it was fairly bold for agency chairman Paul C. Harper Jr. to declare that advertising could help stem the drug-abuse tide "if it is part of a much broader program of education and persuasion" and "if the advertising selects its audience very carefully.'' The agency designed a media strategy targeting 12- to 14-year-olds.

Just like that, Nancy Reagan opened up a new front in the War on Drugs: pop culture. Throughout the Eighties, the "Just Say No" campaign carpet-bombed airwaves with PSAs featuring, for instance, straight-edge saxophone playing and ballet dancing teens. 

Between commercial breaks, the message was embedded in programing like Diff'rent Strokes (on which Nancy Reagan guest-starred) and Punky Brewster. It was in movie theaters too: Reagan teamed up with Clint Eastwood in a series of trailers warning of the dangers of crack cocaine.

Michael Jackson recorded a "Just Say No" version of "Beat It" that aired on The Flintstones, while his sister LaToya performed a single composed by artists working for the Reagan administration on her 1988 album LaToya. Lyrics:

"Brothers and sisters, what are you crying for?/People are dying; what are they dying for?/You've got to be so strong/Don't let 'em lead you on and take you in, into their misery/There's a chance you just can't take; it's a game no one should play/The future is in your hands if you just say no/just say no/say no/everybody say no"

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and the rest of the 1987 Los Angeles Lakers even got in the game with their own "Just Say No" rap.

But for all the star power Reagan was able to rally for the campaign, it was ridiculed by artists who weren't on the Reagan payroll — like NWA, who rapped on Gangsta Gangsta:

"And then you realize we don't care/We don't just say no, we too busy sayin' "Yeah!"/About drinkin' straight out the eight bottle/Do I look like a muthafuckin' role model?/To a kid lookin' up to me: Life ain't nothin but bitches and money"

According to biographer Pierre-Marie Loizeau, by the time Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, Nancy had given more than 1,200 media interviews, delivered 49 speeches, inspired Americans to found 12,000 "Just Say No" clubs around the country, and motivated more than five million people to show up to "Just Say No" marches in 700 cities.

Those impressive numbers belie the fact that — pop-culture artifacts aside — researchers found that "Just Say No" had an almost negligible impact on drug use. For instance, Scientific American found that "Just Say No"-related programs like D.A.R.E. did "little or nothing to combat substance use in youth." Teens were equally as likely to try drugs if they had been through the programs or if they had not, and certain groups, like teen girls, were actually more likely to try drugs after.

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