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: