The story behind the classic 1980s "This is your brain on drugs" TV PSA

"This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" The TV public service announcement was a classic from the ridiculous 1980s "war on drugs." And while I knew that this and other anti-drug PSAs at the time were created by ad agencies, I didn't realize that the American Association of Advertising Agencies actually created and funded the Partnership for a Drug Free America (PDFA)! This academic paper by author and history teacher Joseph Moreau explores how these ads (including the unforgettable "I learned it by watching YOU!" spot) embodied the "just say no!" conservative attitude of the 1980s compared to the "just say know" liberal mindset of the 1970s. From a summary of the paper in JSTOR Daily:

At the time, [American Association of Advertising Agencies president] Lou Hagopian, suggested that the effort could improve the reputation of an industry "credited with—or sometimes blamed for—selling Americans fast food, soft drinks, cars and jeans."[…]

"Television advertising necessitates a relatively straightforward style, but this spot goes well beyond the demands of the medium," Moreau writes. "It relies on a conscious, unapologetic refusal to engage in debate with a hypothetical opponent."[…]

Another unstated message of the spots was that it was only illegal drugs that should be feared. Moreau notes that it was essentially impossible for the PDFA to target legal drugs even if ad-makers wanted to. Television stations depended on revenue from beer and wine companies, and while tobacco ads were banned from TV by this point, they still appeared in the same newspapers and magazines that ran PDFA material. Even more tellingly, as the Nation reporter Cynthia Cotts discovered in 1992, the PDFA received funding from pharmaceutical, alcohol, and tobacco companies for years.

More: ""I Learned it by Watching YOU!" The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Attack on "Responsible Use" Education in the 1980s" (Journal of Social History)

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