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Drug terror ads and kids don't mix

by Lynn M. Paltrow, Executive Director, National Advocates for Pregnant Women

Last spring 2002 my children and I watched a family movie on the ABC Family Channel, and together we were exposed to the entertaining and fascinating world of drugs, drug money and violence.

Somewhere in the middle of the movie, part of a weeklong comedy series, the station ran an advertisement sponsored by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). The advertisement offers stark pictures of teenagers talking about how they are really murderers, torturers and terrorists. The ad originally ran during the Super Bowl, costing taxpayers $3.5 million, as part of a publicity campaign linking American youth who have tried illegal drugs with funding for terrorism.

In the version we saw, teenagers loom out at the viewer, saying such things as "I helped murder families in Colombia," "I helped kids learn how to kill," and "I helped blow up buildings." The teenagers justify their atrocities by noting that they were "just having fun."

The ONDCP Web site and President Bush claim that these ads provide an outlet for young people's idealism, enabling them to feel that they can contribute to the war against terrorism by giving up illegal drugs. However, for my children-who witnessed the 9/11 attacks from their Manhattan public school windows-any intended message about drugs and terrorism was lost. The ad not only failed to convey any coherent message regarding drugs, but it instead seemed to frighten them, making it appear that the threat of terrorism-so close to their actual home-comes somehow from American teenagers.

The ad frightened me as well, making me wonder why ABC would run such deceptive and scary material on a children's channel. I was so upset that I nearly turned off the television. Children, however, generally don't take kindly to having a television show turned off in the middle, and so to avoid a form of domestic terrorism, we continued watching the movie.

During the next commercial break, there was another ad about drugs, but this one, in contrast to the earlier ad, celebrated them. In this ad, a pharmaceutical company was pushing the drug Zoloft™, which will allegedly fix depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The ad's cartoon figure-appealing and accessible to children-suggested that viewers should know what is happening to their own bodies, and should have a say in how to treat their emotional health problems. The contradiction between the two ads was palpable-sometimes using drugs contributes to terrorism, but sometimes using drugs contributes to mental health.

There is also a more subtle disparity between the two ads. In the ONDCP spot, one of the teenage actors says, "My life, my body." This phrase-a rallying cry for numerous social and political movements seeking to ensure personal liberty and bodily integrity-is said with sarcasm, meant to belittle the notion not only as selfish, but tantamount to traitorous. Yet, a few minutes later, the very same concept of personal autonomy and control fuels the advertising campaign for a mind-altering drug that will bring riches to an American pharmaceutical company.

The Zoloft™ ad also teaches that depression and post traumatic stress disorders are treatable and that people should not have to suffer from them needlessly. Yet, we know that some illegal drug use is related to self-medication for depression and post traumatic stress disorder. The two ads thus send contradictory messages here, as well, with one suggesting that self-medicating for these problems is a form of terrorism and the other arguing that it is simply a matter of informed consumerism.

As if these two drug ads were not enough, just a few commercial breaks later there was yet another one. In the third ad, a man comes home to find his kitchen utterly destroyed. After initial surprise, he starts to panic-has some intruder attacked his family? He rushes into the living room to see if his loved ones are safe. And there, sitting serenely on the couch, is his wife, happily sipping her General Foods International Coffee™ and explaining, in not quite so many words, that her desperate need for a caffeine stimulant fix caused her to tear apart the kitchen to find the stuff. This ad startled my children, too-but only because it prompted me to start shrieking things like, "Oh my god! Now they are saying drug use and property destruction are good things!"

Although we had planned to watch the other scheduled comedies on the ABC Family channel that week, we decided to rent movies and read aloud instead. I would rather not have my children watch TV ads that promote and laud some drug users while different ads-funded by our government, no less-spread misinformation and teach intolerance and prejudice against other drug users.

I do, of course, talk to my children about the many risks associated with all forms of drug use and abuse. But I also talk to them about responsibility and the hypocrisy apparent when our government will spend millions to portray innocent young people as terrorists, but steadfastly refuses to fund needed drug treatment for the millions of men women and children who need it in America today.

The latest federal anti-drug ads run alongside spots for Zoloft™ and Taster's Choice™ during family movies. It's no wonder that children are confused about drugs.

Lynn M. Paltrow may be contacted by email at:
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The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information:
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