Teaching Points: Lesson Plan in Truth, Lies, and Anti-Drug Propaganda

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Stephen Siff, an Associate Professor in the Department of Media, Journalism and Film at Miami University of Ohio. He is the author of Acid Hype: American News Media and the Psychedelic Experience (University of Illinois Press, 2015).

I teach media literacy in introductory journalism and mass communication classes at Miami University of Ohio. My recent research explores the history of US anti-drug propaganda campaigns. I was happy when these interests collided over the summer in conjunction with the publication of my article, “‘Why Do You Think They Call It Dope?’: Richard Nixon’s National Mass Media Campaign Against Drug Abuse” in Journalism and Communication Monographs. As supplementary material for my article, I have also provided readers access to a digital lecture about 1970s anti-drug ads, a lesson plan, and two primary source/discussion exercises.

1970s Ad Council Anti-Drug Ad
1970s Ad Council anti-drug advertisement discussed in my powerpoint presentation.

The multimedia PowerPoint slideshow (which includes a voiceover to make it easy to use inside or outside of the classroom) starts this module with the ill-fated story of a national anti-drug advertising campaign initiated by the federal government in 1970. This Nixon-era drug abuse education push was suspended by the feds in 1973, amid a growing body of research that the effort to unsell illegal drugs was backfiring. The PowerPoint presentation includes video footage of anti-drug ads and contemporary critiques of the ads by government and academic experts.

Diagram of a Drug Abuser
“Diagram of a Drug Abuser” from the Ad Council’s anti-drug abuse mass media campaign (c., 1970–71). Students learn about the history of this advertisement in the powerpoint lecture.

The lesson is designed for students to evaluate their media literacy skills (check the facts, consider the source, etc.) as they relate to anti-drug propaganda. The module encourages students to ask questions like: What happens if we hold anti-drug propaganda to the standards of truth and accuracy that we expect from other government communications? Is honesty important when it comes to drug education? Or do the ends justify the means?

The two primary source/discussion exercises invite students to analyze video and print ads from two later anti-drug campaigns: one from the 1980s (“This is your brain on drugs”) and another currently underway in Ohio (“Denial“).

1987 “This is your brain on drugs” commercial by the Partnership for a Drug Free America. The discussion exercise encourages students to analyze the meaning, message, and production of this anti-drug campaign.

In addition to thinking about the rhetoric used in these public service announcements, the exercises further challenge students to consider how financial sponsorships and contemporary political contexts help to explain the messages of these campaigns. One discussion question in the lesson plan about the “This is your Brain on Drugs” ad, for example, asks students: “Television audiences in the 1980s did not know that these ads were sponsored by alcohol, tobacco and drug companies. Why do you think this campaign message was acceptable to these funders?”

With topics like the war on drugs, the opioid epidemic, the legalization of cannabis and other drugs, and many similar issues increasingly in the news today, I hope educators and students will find the crucial historical context provided by these materials to be useful.

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