June 4, 2002

 






 

 

 

 

 

by Jason Felch

An ad from the U.S. government's war on drugs equate buying drugs with sponsoring terrorism.

During the 2001 Superbowl in February, the American public was sold a bold new idea: the war on drugs = the war on terror.

Two commercials mimicked MasterCard's latest campaign: "boxcutters, $2; plastic explosives, $1200; fake ID, $3000."

The kicker: "Where do terrorists get their money? If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, which leads the government's drug control program, paid between $2 and $3 million for the 30-second spots, making them the most expensive ads ever bought by the U.S. government.

"It is no accident that this initiative came after 9/11," says Jennifer DeVallance, press secretary for the drug control office. "The American public was much more receptive to that message."

It also seemed no accident that the "public service" ads were followed a day later by the Bush administration's 2003 budget plan. It outlines the re-labeling of U.S. involvement in Colombia, which entails pulling a former counter-narcotics operation under the new umbrella of counter-terrorism.

The drug control office insists the ads weren't made to make a foreign policy statement. But a curious alignment of left and right voices complained anyway, from NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, to Christopher Caldwell, senior editor at the conservative Weekly Standard.

The common ground they found was propaganda. "The drug bureaucracy appears to believe that no one will take its drug war seriously unless the federal government resorts to propaganda worthy of the Zhdanov-era Soviet Union," wrote Caldwell in the Weekly Standard. Most major papers dutifully ran a debate story on the ads. From there, the story migrated to op-ed pages and then to letters pages, where the topic petered out.

What was missed in all the coverage was the media's apparent complicity in the ad campaign. In October 1997, Congress passed National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Act, authorizing $1 billion in ad buys for drug control office over five years. A key stipulation of the act was that media outlets "match in-kind" the ad space purchased by drug control office. In other words, the government could ads at a two-for-one rate.

Why would the media agree to run advertisements for the federal government that blur public service and propaganda? And why would they do it for half price?

Public service is the traditional answer. The media has a long history of selling cut-rate space for public service messages. Broadcast media are required by law to "serve the public interest," and newspapers have traditionally offered ad space for public service announcements voluntarily. That makes sense when government is spreading a message about preventing forest fires or reducing illiteracy, but in these latest ads the public service value has been muddied by its connection with the war on terror.

A more compelling motive may be economics. According to industry rag Media uyer's Daily, ad revenues for major media corporations declined by 17 percent in 2001, with newspapers being the hardest hit. For the most part, those declines continued in the first quarter of 2002. Given this dismal ad market, even a half-price ad may be hard to turn down. Some have suggested that Fox sold the Super Bowl ad space to the drug control office only when it had trouble filling the spots otherwise.

"The ad world is eager to take the money," says DeVallance of the drug control office. "The campaign has been overwhelmingly successful." So successful that the ads were extended through March, and then again through June. The commercials, the latest in a series of anti-drug ads, have run on the major networks and been printed in 300 publications nationwide including the New York Times, TheWashington Post and USA Today. The drug control office's ad purchase power is now "rivaling that of most corporate efforts," according to a drug control office press release. The agency's 2002 advertising budget, $155 million for ad purchases alone, surpasses that of Xerox, Motorola, Nintendo, BMW, Jack in the Box, Heineken and Eli Lilly.

"You have to have a very powerful reason to reject advertising," says Jay Harris, former chairman and publisher of the San Jose Mercury News.

In addition to the economic incentive, ads are a form of speech, Harris says. On the other hand, "If the government began to use advertising dollars to buy space in a newspaper to push a message that wasn't really a public service message, but a political one, I would have a concern," Harris says.

The integrity of the media is supposed to be protected by the separation of the business and editorial sides.

"The theory of the separation is very strong," said Orville Schell, dean of the University of California, Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "The practical side is weaker. At times of economic downturn, it is even weaker."

But at the height of the boom when ad revenue was flush, the drug office still crossed the line between public service and politics. After the office received funds to runs anti-drug ads in 1998, it struck a deal with five of the major networks: in lieu of the pro-bono ad time Congress had mandated, anti-drug messages could be inserted into scripts of popular TV shows. As Salon.com reported in January 2000 (), the government's ad agency approved anti-drug messages on shows like 90210 and ER. According to the drug control office, the arrangement ended last year after becoming public, "to avoid any misunderstanding."

That was before the drugs = terror campaign. Since then, ad revenues have wilted while the drug control office's budget has grown. "This is a strange conjugation between government, PR and the media. That is a potentially volatile mix of powerful players," said Schell. "In the past, the public interest has all too easily gotten lost when these players start dancing."



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