Most Eighties and Nineties babies remember the Truth Campaign: The series of anti-smoking ads that took a fresh and unflinching stance on the dangers of cigarette smoking. The TV spots pulled no punches. They featured images that were difficult to look at, like people with tracheotomies and voice boxes singing on parade. To an extent the Truth Campaign worked. In 2000, almost 30 percent of teens were smokers; as of last year, that number had dropped to eight percent.
Now, the campaign is turning to the opioid epidemic, releasing four new ads based on true stories. The ads take a novel approach in showing visceral and jarring reenactments of true stories of the lengths opioid users have gone to get drugs: smashing their hands with a hammer, allowing the body of a car to fall onto their chest and even driving a car into a brick wall. In the 12-step world, these types of stories are usually referred to as “war stories.”
These reenactments are startling, and it’s true that opioid-dependent people have taken such measures to get prescriptions. However, the ads suffer from their singular focus, perhaps risking becoming easily mock-able, even meme-like. While these ads are likely to grab viewers’ attention, that might be the extent of it. There’s a better way to dissuade young viewers who are at risk: focus on the awful banality of active addiction.
The original Truth campaign succeeded by featuring images that were hard to look at and hard to look away from. The new campaign attempts to do the same thing, but opioids are a completely different entity, and what aims to be an anti-drug campaign runs the risk of being a drug campaign. Young people are dramatic, and may also suffer from higher rates of depression than past generations. The threat of self-harm, while frightening, could easily be processed instead as being exciting.
The anti-drug ads fail most in their inability to hone in on the reasons why young people are trying opioids in record numbers in the first place. Kids who have been steadily overmedicated for their mental health issues often find themselves, not just accustomed to medicating to solve problems, but unable to afford quality mental health care when they become adults. In parts of the country where economic prosperity is in short supply, opioid addiction has become rampant because it’s a drug that curbs human need, whether it be the need for love and affection or the need for purpose.
The ads take a novel approach and succeed, to some extent, at the goal of any advertisement – getting a message across or delivering a fresh take on a recognized product. However, in the world of anti-drug ads, the stakes are high. Opioids sell themselves. They promise adventure and excitement. They promise a life of skinny, wide-eyed days of lovemaking and nights of restful dreamless sleep.
While the early days of opioid abuse for some might deliver on that promise, the life of an opioid addict quickly becomes something different, and every anti-opioid ad will continue to fail to reach kids until they hone in on this truth: opioids will make you boring.
Opioids end with terrible constipation to the point where a user becomes obsessed with their next successful defecation. Opioid addicts crave and eat sweets, causing their teeth to rot and fall out. Bloating is a side effect of many opioids. Decreased libido is another side effect to the extent where many male users experience nocturnal emissions during their use, and especially during withdrawals. In the end, opioid-dependent people spend their time sleeping, and finding ways to get more opioids. Nothing is worth the money that could otherwise be spent on more opioids: no concerts, no vacations, no movies. Sex becomes boring. As far as friends are concerned, it’s mostly other users, happy as long as they have a place to get high and nod off. Opioids do make the user feel like a fetus in the womb, but how much time does anyone want to spend hanging out with a fetus?
Children don’t respond to dramatic scare tactics because they can hardly internalize them. They’re immortal. The scariest thing to a young person is being boring. There’s nothing more boring than an old junkie. That’s the truth.