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blowing smoke
a look at the recent anti-marijuana campaign
by jeffrey d. walker
pop culture

So, did you see the recent anti-marijuana advertisement about the girls on the swim team? In a nutshell, there are like four high-school age girls standing by the pool before a relay race. It’s obvious that these girls are one member short. And there’s a voice counting backwards. As you can imagine, the countdown reaches “one” and the missing member does not arrive. Hence, the race is forfeited.

The ad concludes with the voice-over saying something like, “just tell them you were smoking weed.”

I guess I'm supposed to think that the missing girl simply forgot about her swim meet. You know, because pot is supposed to make you forget.

But the more I thought about this, the less sense it made. The missing swimmer had to have been on this team for some time. I mean, it's not like you just show up and swim at a swim-meet on an organized team. She must have made it to practice on a pretty regular basis; from what I know, people who miss practice don't get to compete. At any rate, it’s especially unlikely given that this is a relay-team situation.

So, in order for me to buy this commercial, I have to believe that this girl:

(1) Went out for the swim team
(2) Made it on the team
(3) Attended practice
(4) Got on the relay squad
(5) And then, after all that time and effort, missed the big meet because she was smoking weed?

Let me not forget to also point out the obvious: swimming is hard. Real hard. It’s one of the most comprehensive aerobic activities around. I’m to believe that this swimmer, this conditioned athlete, decided that shortly before a swim meet was the right time to toke up? I suppose the race could have been set for just after 4:40 in the afternoon, but forgive me if I don’t buy the premise.

I remember an earlier ad in this same campaign: this one featured a kid with a wrecked car, and the voiceover is like, “Just tell Dad you were smoking weed.”

While the premise seems more plausible, it still doesn’t hold much water. A study by South Australian researchers at the University of Adelaide found “marijuana has a negligible impact on [auto accident] culpability,” especially when compared to alcohol.

In fact, most credible research finds no connection between marijuana and auto accidents. Why? Two-decades worth of marijuana and driving research at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health suggest that, although marijuana temporarily impairs the ability to drive, subjects under the influence of marijuana “perceive that they are indeed impaired [and] where they can compensate, they do.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting anybody should get high and drive. I’m not recommending people get high.

I am, however, suggesting that the ad with the alleged stoned driver accident is based on a hackneyed storyline. While wrecking Dad’s car always scares the kids, scientific research suggests that the scenario is a mostly a fallacy. How effective can an advertisement be that tries to scare kids into not using marijuana by suggesting a situation that is less likely than an accident caused by speeding? Or an accident associated with the use of a cellular phone?

But at least I can understand the rationale behind the car wreck ad. “If you smoke weed, you could wreck the car.”

I still don’t get the fear context with the swimming ad. “If you smoke weed, you’ll miss your swim meet?” Shudder to think! What about all the other stuff little girls miss swim meets for? Friends, detention, boys, sickness, heavy flow days… now there’s something to get mad at.

“Just tell them you were flowing like the pool pump.” I’ll bet they’ll never show you that ad.

I suppose there’s another way to view this ad. Consider the depiction of the alleged marijuana user: This is not the stereotypical dreadlocked, dropout depiction of a marijuana user. This isn’t the back of the class, giggling, red-eyed, joint-jonesin’ kid waiting to get back to mystery machine for a dooby-snack. We can gather that this alleged pot smoker is an active member of the swim team whom other members depended on.

Which I guess goes to show that, at least the people making these ads realize that those who try marijuana are not limited to the kids at the back of the class. It runs the whole social spectrum. And I suppose this is at least a clearer understanding of the issue of marijuana use. At least, I believe, we’ve come a long way since the eggs and the frying pan ads.

So what’s the next step? I’m no expert, but I’ve noticed a lot of anti-drug ads always focus on what might happen if you use drugs; consequences. In my humble opinion, however, consequences often have no impact on certain kids; especially the sorts of kids who are likely to experiment with drugs. Consequences often have a hard time beating their archenemy, curiosity.

You know what I’ve never seen in an anti-drug ad? Something to satisfy the curiosity of the kid who wants to try it. Drugs of all sorts hold a particular appeal. Some say they sell themselves! Be it the dark mystique, the altered experience, or the way the cool characters use them in the movies, there’s an appeal to drugs.

I am firmly of the opinion that if we are truly to stop kids from using drugs, we have to find a way to satisfy the curiosity that surrounds them. We have to find a way to talk about drugs openly; the consequences, and the upshots (or, at least, perceived upshots). And we must also work to crush a lot of the false allegations made over time about some drugs.

We must try to tell both sides of the story so that people can make educated decisions.

thanks to NORML.org


A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker


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topic: pop culture
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by jeffrey d. walker
topic: pop culture
published: 11.9.11


sandra thompson
6.17.04 @ 7:11a

I've always said (doncha just love stuff that starts, "I've always said?") we need to decriminalize drugs and divert all that money we use locking people up for drug use to rehab programs and education. These ads don't quite meet the criteria for education IMFO. So now we're wasting more money.....ah, the patient tax-payer watching our money go down the tubes.

mike julianelle
6.17.04 @ 9:26a

Those commercials, the absurd "swim meet" one included, are so ridiculous that their inherent hyperbole defeat the purpose of the ads. Noone takes those thing seriously. Like the ad where the kids are getting high in the house, and one picks up a gun and it goes off. Do you blame that on marijuana? No, you blame it on GUNS. And Daddy, who left his in his desk.

What's my anti-drug? DRUGS.

dan gonzalez
6.17.04 @ 9:46a

My daughter came up to me after school last year, after seeing some DARE-type thing (which now seem to be targeting first-graders!) and said:
"People shouldn't smoke, Dad, because if you smoke, you could get drugs."


jeffrey walker
6.17.04 @ 9:58a

did you say, "yes, I could, couldn't I? Ha ha ha!!"

jeff miller
6.17.04 @ 10:06a

Well, these are "ads" after all. At best, they attempt to capture some of the "Truth" campaign drama, though rather than playing on our fear of mortality, these play off the audience's fears of having to explain themselves to to other people.
"I ate four pizzas covered in oreos because I was high."
"I stuffed my mom's bra fulla oatmeal cuz I was high."
"I puked on my girlfriend's dad's lexus cuz I was high."
I think an effective ad would make some mention of the fact that most young, dedicated dope-smokers would have enough money to put a down-payment on a damn house by the time they were 21 if they had put that money into a bank account instead of a bong.
if I knew then what i know now...


joe procopio
6.17.04 @ 10:42a

Prevention ads don't have any effect, no matter what their subject matter. In the '90s, kids could spew those mantras, even convincingly, and then run right out and toke up. Remember "This is your brain on drugs?" Cult classic!

As for talking to your kids about drugs, my dad was both insightful and efficient.

"If I find pot on you, I will beat the living snot out of you."

adam kraemer
6.17.04 @ 10:47a

I love the one where the girl is passed out and then commercial rewinds to show what she was doing up to that point. Like passing out at a party is some horrible consequence. "Oh, God! She's asleep from drugs! I hope she wasn't having any fun before this!"

mike julianelle
6.17.04 @ 11:16a

And the one where being high paralyzes a girl like roofies and allows her to et raped. She took a couple of bowl hits, she didn't OD on Horse. At least be honest with kids. Reduces sperm count, it's expensive, excessive use may tire you out and drain motivation, etc. Don't lie, kids can smell bullshit a mile away, and they love shoving it in your face. If I were them I'd be smoking out of spite.

matt morin
6.17.04 @ 11:22a

I'm sure a bunch of focus groups told the ad agency that their biggest fear about drugs is getting embarrassed or doing something stupid while on them. And that's where all these concepts came from.

Ads can totally change behavoir though. Think about the ad campaigns in the 70s that told people to buckle up for safety.

mike julianelle
6.17.04 @ 11:42a

Yeah, but the message in those was straightforward: buckle up or you might die. These ads aren't logical: get high and you might accidentally shoot yourself with the gun your dad left around. Get high and you might forget that you have an athletic competition and let down your friends - btw, NO ONE would ever get high in the locker room before a swim meet! What a joke!

For these ads to be effective they need to be realistic and honest, not apocryphal.

matt morin
6.17.04 @ 11:51a

I see the message as: Get high and you might disappoint your parents. Or get high and you might let down your friends.

Thaty seems like a simple message to me.

mike julianelle
6.17.04 @ 12:20p

Yeah, no shit, the message is "Getting High is bad." I just think they could do a much better, more effective job of presenting that, without hyperbole and illogical bullcrap.

joe procopio
6.17.04 @ 1:20p

I would think that the seatbelt law did far more for seat belt use than ads did.

dan gonzalez
6.17.04 @ 1:25p

Even if they would have shown shown the stoned wimmer making the swim-meet, falling behind in the race, getting confused, hitting her head on the wall during the first flip-turn and nearly drowning, the message would still only be "Don't swim when you're baked." I can't see these ads reaching anybody intelligent.

adam kraemer
6.17.04 @ 1:33p

I don't think they're aimed at the high school intelligencia, Dan.

dan gonzalez
6.17.04 @ 2:15p

Yeah, I'm sure you're right. But are not-so intelligent kids--excepting Matt of course--really going to derive the subtle messages for themselves?

jeffrey walker
6.17.04 @ 2:27p

I think high school kids get the message... just long enough to blow it off (pun intended).


dathan wood
6.17.04 @ 3:10p

Pot, like booze is mostly just attractive to kids because it’s illegal. I grew up around it and was never really that interested in it. Our neighbor would have harvest parties where the kids would all sit on the floor clipping buds and because it all seemed so normal, pot never held any mystique for us. When you take away the coolness factor of doing something you shouldn’t be doing, most kids make pretty smart decisions.

What really needs to be preached is moderation. A few drinks, an occasional bong rip, who cares? Drugs and alcohol are great as long as they don’t become an all day or everyday diversion from life.

Oh, I played football with a guy we called Bubblehead. He got high everyday before practice and games and he always played very well. I of course would have needed a nap and a snack at halftime.

matt morin
6.17.04 @ 3:29p

I'm not saying these specific ads are effective. I'm just saying I'm sure the strategy behind them came out of some kind of research.

mike julianelle
6.17.04 @ 3:43p

So did the Holocaust.

matt morin
6.17.04 @ 3:47p

I think Mike is smoking something.

robert melos
6.17.04 @ 5:12p

No, Mike is right. The holocaust didn't just spring up, it grew out of the same type of research you hear about from religious right nutcases we have around now spouting their garbage against homosexuality. Back then it was the Jews and blacks, and gypsies and homosexuals who were keeping the Germans from being a "pure" race.

Any fanatic can use research to their advantage.

As for the seatbelt law, I think it is effective because no one wants another traffic ticket and a cop with a superiority complex lecturing them about safety.

Oh, about drugs? Just say no.

Uh huh. Right.

jeffrey walker
6.17.04 @ 6:10p

well, having drugs is against the law. people caught with them will have trouble with the law. it just doesn't matter to some people, i guess.

jeffrey walker
6.17.04 @ 6:10p

well, having drugs is against the law. people caught with them will have trouble with the law. it just doesn't matter to some people, i guess. SORRY FOR DOUBLE POST // browser issues.


tracey kelley
6.18.04 @ 11:01a

I don't think kids do drugs because they're illegal and thus, a thrill - it's all a form of escapism. Ask the 250 lb. chick with the half-gallon of Breyers, or the guy that runs 10 miles even when his feet are bleeding, or the guy that sleeps with hookers when his wife is waiting at home. It's pleasure, it's release.

And, unfortunately, kids have standards of cool, and substance use is still something considered as what the "cool" kids do, unless a kid is extremely well-adjusted.

adam kraemer
6.18.04 @ 11:32a

Well, to some extent, rebellion is always cool.

matt morin
6.18.04 @ 12:22p

Not that it's exactly on par with smoking pot, but did anyone see the new CDC report?

"The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Thursday that nearly 22 percent of high school students said they were smokers in 2003. That is down from more than 36 percent in 1997, and the lowest level since the CDC began keeping track in 1975."

tony avina
6.19.04 @ 10:47p

I work for a school district. I think the swim meet ad was referencing the "zero tolerance" policy for student athletes which sez that if you get caught smoking weed you will be suspended from the team. The idea I think is to make kids feel responsible for the fascistic policies and draconian outcomes that adults have dreamed up to fight the War on Drugs. Rumors that we're going to start cutting off their feet have been exaggerated.

jeffrey walker
6.20.04 @ 11:01a

Rumors that we're going to start cutting off their feet have been exaggerated.

that'll effect the outcome of the swim meet!

dan gonzalez
6.20.04 @ 11:01p

Loaded political bait: We ought to cut the feet off the NEA, the foremost example of fascists in education.

sarah ficke
6.21.04 @ 9:40p

"If I find pot on you, I will beat the living snot out of you."

Heh. Reminds me of this comic.


tony avina
6.22.04 @ 12:00a

I think my last post was a little angry and possibly even a bit cynical. I apologize, since I want to persuade not preach. This past school year I had an absolutely adorable 6 year old come to me in tears of real grief and terror. When I finally figured out what was wrong, it seems that she had just received her anti-smoking indoctrination, and was terrified of the prospect of her mothers inevitable early death, since the woman smokes cigarettes...It took a half day of careful patient work to calm the little girls' fears. I approve of the idea of trying to discourage our nation's youth from doing things that are bad for them (smoking, drinking, dope, reading comic books and liberal newspapers, etc.) BUT I agree with the general tenor of the previous commentators who opt for reason and truth over terrifying small children and insulting the intelligence of adolescents. Those tactics fail in the long run and make the problem worse.

matt morin
6.22.04 @ 12:24a

Since we're talking about insulting the intelligence of adolescents, is this where I bring up George Bush relegating 1/3rd of AIDS/Teen Pregnancy prevention money to groups that ONLY teach abstinence?

No...no, it's probably not where I should bring this up. My bad.

dan gonzalez
6.22.04 @ 1:05a

it's probably not where I should bring this up

Too late.

You have a problem with him giving 1/3 of money to the only solution that can preven both AIDS and unwanted pregnancy with 100% success? He's still giving 2/3's of it to groups that only teach choices that have demonstrably worse odds.

Those tactics fail in the long run and make the problem worse.

Today I saw an Ad Council 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk' ad in my kid's SpiderMan comic book, for Christ's sake. Those idiots.

robert melos
6.22.04 @ 1:37a

Today I saw an Ad Council 'Friends don't let friends drive drunk' ad in my kid's SpiderMan comic book, for Christ's sake. Those idiots.

Dan, thanks to George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program, many high school seniors can now read at a third grade level, so the placement of that ad is very fitting.

richard risman
7.8.04 @ 2:06p

Um, I forgot what I was going to say. Sorry. It'll come to me. Meanwhile, would anyone happen to have a 40-pound bag of Oreo cookies? Some garlic dip?

But seriously, years ago, an anti-cocaine ad ran showing a nose below which a boom box appeared. The nose "snorted" up the boom box. A series of other items followed, one after the next. I think one was a car. I thought that was effective. A "nickel bag" really DID cost $5 at one point. I understand that pot is very expensive now. And I'll bet most who have smoked pot have also tried other stuff, also costly. So the "down payment on a house" point is a good one. These ads lack balance, perspective. How about portraying the screwed-up families, relationships and careers caused by alcohol abuse? I'd bet that problem affects a far greater sector of our population. Seems to me LOTS of people are "left behind" by that, but where are THOSE ads? Missing a swim meet is one thing. But how about showing drunk teens abusing a boyfriend or girlfriend or growing up with alcoholic parents, spouse abuse, being unable to hold down a job? A SWIM meet? Implicit in Jeff's article is that many just ignore these ads because they're so out of touch with reality, so they're relatively ineffective;they might not be ignored if they portrayed these far more serious consequences of substance abuse that anyone of any age would understand. A swim meet? I mean, even if someone makes a team, and really DOES miss a meet or has a car crash [could be-pot does impair our attention span (see above)], wouldn't these ads get more attention/have greater desired impact if they portrayed these far more serious, more realistically life-altering consequence that stem from substance abuse? The chances are far greater that these affected the lives of the ad's creator and those responsible for its airing.

adam kraemer
7.8.04 @ 3:40p

Well, I think that trying to make the argument that pot leads to violence might be stretching it.

juli mccarthy
7.8.04 @ 3:57p

Bill Hicks made a similar point, Adam. "I have never seen people on pot get into a fight because it's f**kin' impossible."

richard risman
7.9.04 @ 11:57a

In explication, I'd just as well equate the plausibility of pot-induced violence with the idea that missing a swim meet will trigger a dive that starts with violent behavior and ends with hitting the rock-bottom heart-break of pot use.

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