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Partnership for a Drug-Free America

A curve in the road to a “Drug-Free America”

Tom Hedrick speaks with me in a sunlit suite of offices overlooking Park Avenue in Manhattan. A genial host, he recounts the early days of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), which he helped to found in the mid-1980s and where he still works. Wary of derailing the interview, I hesitate to ask about a controversy that, to some degree, still shadows the organization.

Virtually every American over 35 who had access to a television set in the waning years of the Reagan Administration is familiar with the PDFA’s handiwork. The frying pan with a sizzling egg stand-in for “your brain on drugs.” The stern, middle-aged father confronting his son over the boy’s pot stash, only to be told, “I learned it by watching you!

These memorable spots resulted from an effort by advertising executives, artists, and copywriters to “unsell” some of the country’s most popular, though illegal, consumer products.

“You have to remember the environment in 1984 and ’85,” remarks Hedrick. “It was a period like no other.” Crack was spawning addiction and violent crime among its users while lawmakers cast accusing fingers at Hollywood for treating illegal drug use as harmless, even alluring. “We in the media were partly responsible for what was going on. So why couldn’t we also not just show one side, or glamorize the issue?” he explains. After all, “many of us worked on teen or young adult products. There was a lot of good professional experience we could bring to bear.”

And thus the operating model of the Partnership was born. Ad agencies proposed public service announcements (PSAs) for TV, radio, and print. A panel at the PDFA screened them, rejected many, and then sent finished work to participating media, which ran them free of charge. The Partnership steered clear of attacks on legal drugs for at least one obvious reason. A television station that relied on advertising from breweries, for example, might prove reluctant to provide airtime for a hard-hitting PSA on alcohol abuse.

"I learned it by watching you!" public service announcement
Screenshot of the 1987 public service announcement “I Learned it by Watching You!” by Partnership for a Drug-Free America, used with permission.

With much of the campaign relying on voluntary contributions—even Federal Express offered its services pro bono—costs were relatively low. Still, the Partnership’s directors needed to cover operating expenses. To help make ends meet, they struck something of a Faustian bargain, one best kept under wraps. But because the organization functioned as a nonprofit, the story became a matter of public record. All it took was an enterprising reporter willing to do some digging.

In a spring 1992 exposé in the Nation, Cynthia Cotts revealed that the PDFA’s supporters included several pharmaceutical companies, the maker of Jim Beam whiskey, Anheuser-Busch, and Philip Morris. Most damningly, R.J. Reynolds had been backing its calls for a “drug-free America” even as public health advocates condemned the company for hooking youngsters on cigarettes with its kid-friendly cartoon mascot, Joe Camel.

Cotts pulled no punches: “The war on drugs is a war on illegal drugs, and the partnership’s benefactors have a large stake in keeping it that way. They know that when schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they’re also learning that alcohol, tobacco, and pills are as American as apple pie.” Others were even harsher, and their criticism stung all the more because the Partnership appeared to be making real progress in shifting popular attitudes about illicit drugs.

At the time, Hedrick was unrepentant, claiming that he would have “taken money from the devil” to combat the scourge of crack. That implied comparison hardly flattered the organization’s heretofore silent partners, and it appeared inevitable that they would go their separate ways. Soon the PDFA pledged not to take alcohol and tobacco money, a position it notes prominently on its website today, though it openly acknowledges continued pharmaceutical support. For other reasons, directors also expanded the Partnership’s mission from persuading young people to abstain from drugs to reaching out to parents of children at risk. Now renamed the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, the group addresses the dangers of licit as well as illicit drugs, with a focus on abuse of prescription medications. Decades of work earned Hedrick recognition from the White House earlier this year.

When schoolchildren learn that marijuana and crack are evil, they’re also learning that alcohol, tobacco, and pills are as American as apple pie.

I finally broached the topic. Had the passage of time changed his perspective on the funding question? “Maybe from a public relations point of view that was a stupid thing to do. I can understand why there was so much criticism.”

Not quite an admission of error, but perhaps understandable in light of how charges by the Partnership’s most vociferous critics—who portrayed it as little more than a front for Big Tobacco out to brainwash unsuspecting young people—distorted the efforts of its professional, generally earnest staff.

The closest analogue to “unselling” drugs may be unselling candidates for office. And as leading scholars in political science have argued, attack ads are not especially useful for implanting negative perceptions where none exist; they work when they tap into pre-existing attitudes or beliefs and then amplify, exploit, or redirect them. That is why their creators spend so much time and money researching, and trying to intuit, the attitudes of their audience. The most compelling, or notorious, of such ads was Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 “Daisy,” which featured a freckle-faced preschooler obliterated in a nuclear explosion. There was no need even to mention Barry Goldwater’s name because many viewers already had an impression that LBJ’s Republican opponent was trigger-happy.

Likewise, in the late 1980s, advertisers with the Partnership did not really convince viewers to divide, as it were, the sheep from the goats, culturally acceptable, legal drugs from apparently dangerous and illegal ones like cocaine. They did not conjure up ambivalence about employing chemicals to alter people’s moods or consciousness. They did not have to.

They learned that by watching us.

Featured image credit: Cigarette smoke by Ralf Kunze. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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