by Jason Felch
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
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
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
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
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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