“This is your brain on drugs,” a man says, holding up a frying pan with a sizzling egg, in the famous 1980s anti-drug public service announcement.
Three decades later, Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, formerly the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, is bringing back the classic advertisement. This time, it comes with something more than just a fried egg.
The last line of the 1980s ad — “Any questions?” — is the beginning of the new “Fried Egg 2016” PSA. It’s followed by children asking a series of poignant questions about prescription drugs, heroin, marijuana and their parents’ drug histories. The ad ends with the voice of actress Allison Janney directing parents to the partnership’s website to prepare themselves with answers.
The old and the new
Unlike the straightforward 1980s ad and the 1990s version, in which actress Rachael Leigh Cook smashes an egg (and a kitchen) with a pan while talking about the adverse effects of heroin, the latest anti-drug PSA is aimed at adults.
“We have evolved to meet the need of parents today. They were teens back then, and now they are parents,” said Kristi Rowe, the chief marketing officer of Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
As children learn about drugs from a variety of sources, she said, parents are going to be faced with the need to have open conversations with their kids and combat some of the messages they’re getting elsewhere.
“We want them to know that we have resources to help them,” Rowe said.
The new PSA is part of the organization’s “Fried Egg 2016” campaign. Advertising agency Campbell Ewald produced the 30-second TV ad and a radio spot, while another agency, BFG Communications, helped create a print ad and online banners. Rowe said all the agencies and production partners worked pro bono.
Same old trick?
But whether anti-drug campaigns in general are indeed effective remains unclear. A 2015 research project (PDF) reviewed 19 studies that looked at the effects of mass media campaigns on drug use and concluded that media interventions have mixed influences on youth.
Michael Slater, a professor of communication at Ohio State University, said it would be hard to tell whether the new PSA is effective, because such a decision would require empirical research and pretesting. But he said parent ads are generally more effective because parents are more motivated and receptive, and they complement the ads aimed at youth.
Slater thinks the new ad assumes kids are skeptical and questioning and said it does not seem as simplistic or naive as the original one.
The ad did not go through formal testing, Rowe said. “The campaign is based off of substantial insights and qualitative feedback from parents specifically asking Partnership for help to answer their teens’ tough questions about drugs,” she noted.
Anti-drug media campaigns have increasingly paid attention to targeting parents and helping them understand the current situation of substance abuse, according to Michael Stephenson, a professor of communication at Texas A&M University. And the style of these campaigns has evolved to better capture viewers’ attention with advanced technology and visual techniques.
“If you look at the 1987 ad, it’s slow,” said Stephenson. “If you look at today’s ad, you’ll see how quickly the ad moves from one cut to another. … They are taking advantage of the research done on the effects of messages on audience.”
Marsha Rosenbaum, founder of Safety First at the Drug Policy Alliance, which provides anti-drug resources for parents, finds the tone of the new PSA calm and reasonable. She said that framing the ad as a conversation is an improvement from 30 years ago but that there is a lot more for parents to learn and think about beyond the information provided on the website.
“I would caution parents to dig in there. … Look at various information and websites,” she said. “Make sure that … what you’re telling your kids are actually true, based on solid science.”
Of course, Rosenbaum said, the best message is “don’t do it,” but in reality, some children might have already started doing drugs. In that case, she suggests that parents learn about the harm-reduction approach and talk to their kids about how to stay safe and increase safety when using drugs.
Telling kids not to do drugs is not a one-stop shop to prevent drug use, Rosenbaum said. Parents also need to be supportive and understand their children. It is important that children have the appropriate resources and an engaged and balanced life, she said, such as participating in extracurricular activities.