New Anti-Opioid Ads Send Wrong Message

As part of its effort to revive the Reagan administration’s war on drugs, the Trump administration released a series of new ads aimed at opioid users. The ad campaign, called “the Truth About Opioids,” was created by the Truth Initiative, along with the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Ad Council. Media partners including Facebook, Google, YouTube and Amazon have agreed to donate roughly $30 million worth of airtime and ad space to run the 30-second spots, according to Ad Council CEO Lisa Sherman.

But according to some experts, these ads are “misleading,” “stigmatizing,” and “wildly off target.” They say these ads double down on harmful stereotypes first seen in the “just say no” message championed by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. These new ads feature real-life stories from opioid users who went to extreme lengths to get their painkiller prescriptions refilled. In one ad, a man breaks his own hand with a hammer. In others, we see people slamming their arm in a door, running their car into a dumpster, and crushing themselves under a car—all to get more pain pills. Each ad’s subject makes the same statement: “I didn’t know they’d be this addictive. I didn’t know how far I’d go to get more.”

While these images are extremely visceral, it’s unclear what message viewers are meant to take from them. And while the campaign’s intent may be noble, the ads seem more than a little voyeuristic: meant to inspire a mixture of pity and revulsion from people who aren’t struggling with drug use, rather than offer comfort or hope to those who are. The underlying message is a terrifying one: if you take one hit, you will become irrevocably addicted. This claim is misleading at best. It’s important to keep the facts straight when talking about drug use, even if those facts may not conform to a scared-straight line of messaging.

Stefanie Jones is the director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance. She says the ads do nothing to help defray the harmful stigma associated with drug use. “It’s disingenuous and misleading to take one extreme account—or four, as it were—and present that as the average experience,” she says. “We need to be unbiased. We need to be non-judgmental. And this sort of emotional approach flies in the face of all of that.”

Daniel Raymond, the deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, calls the ad campaign “the 21st century version of the egg-in-the-frying-pan” PSA. “We don’t need shock value to fight the overdose crisis; we need empathy, connection, and hope for people struggling with opioids,” Raymond writes in an email. “The White House missed an opportunity to combat stigma and stereotypes, portraying people who use opioids as irrational and self-destructive.”

  • 2 Commentsby Likes|Date
  • I haven't seen the ads, so I can't really put forth my opinion.... I do feel that there are enough excellent script writer that could target both the opiate addict and the public with hopeful and informative messages for both groups.
  • I haven't seen the ads, either. I will definitely keep an eye out for them, though. I do know this: We should be working to tear down stereotypes...not contribute more to them.
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