“First time I tried Vicodin, it was laying around my mom’s house and I kept taking them whenever I can get them,” narrates a voice-over for a White House ad on opioid addiction. “I didn’t know they’d be this addictive. I didn’t know how far I would go to get more.”
Seconds later, a young man deliberately slams a door on his arm to break it. Nonlinear noises play as distorted images show him screaming.
This is one of four advertisements the Trump administration officially launched on Thursday. They’re all graphic, telling true stories of young people hurting themselves to get more prescription opioids.
The campaign release is a highly anticipated move, following the president’s comments in March announcing that the White House will be “spending a lot of money on great commercials to show how bad it is… you scare them from ending up like the people in the commercials.”
And his ads are just that, scary. But they aren’t very helpful.
“Who does not know at this moment, after 22 years of an epidemic, that these drugs are addictive?” said Keith Humphreys, a drug policy expert at Stanford University and former senior policy adviser for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “They don’t give information. They are just trying to terrify everyone, and I think people are already terrified.”
In addition to learning nothing new from these advertisements, Humphreys says the videos further stigmatize people who struggle with addiction.
“They’re awful. Can you imagine being addicted to opioids and then seeing these ads — which basically say you are a freak and inhuman monster? Would you go into care and say, ‘Yeah I’m one of those people?'” he said. “We’ve learned nothing.”
The ads do emphasize that “opioid dependence can happen after just five days.” But they focus only on the lengths people will go to to feed addiction. The campaign, dubbed the “Truth About Opioids,” could have told audiences something new, advising viewers on how to properly dispose of leftover opioids, or where to purchase the life-saving overdose drug naloxone.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy partnered with two nonprofits, the Truth Initiative and the Ad Council, in order to create the advertisements. That ad space will cost $30 million according to an official with the Ad Council, and the White House told reporters on Thursday they will only spend $384,000 on the campaign. The rest will be aided by donations. Organizers reportedly tested over 150 different images before settling on the four advertisements chosen.
The White House says the advertisements released Thursday are the first of many campaign ads to come and mark “another critical step” in addressing opioid epidemic. These videos are specifically focused on preventing drug misuse among young adults, ages 18 to 24.
By virtually all measures, the opioid crisis is devastating young people. Last week, researchers released a study showing one in five young people who died in 2016 suffered from opioid-related side-effects. But public health experts say drug awareness campaigns aren’t the best way to address this.
“Historically, programs that have sought to scare people into avoiding drugs have either been ineffective or had the opposite effect,” said Omar Manejwala, chief medical officer of Catasys and an expert on addiction. “Effective approaches to adolescent prevention generally focus on skill building, developmental factors, community, and environmental contributors and policies.”
The “Just Say No” campaign unveiled in the 1980s is a major example. The campaign’s advertisements are largely seen in retrospect as unhelpful and many ads backfired. Experts say contemporary White House efforts will likely be more of the same.
“The problem with the ’80s ads was, they were aimed to please Congress, and when you are trying to please an audience of people who are about 50 years old on average and wear a suit to work and they think kids these days don’t listen — they’re going to love it. Trump will love these commercials,” said Humphreys. “But that’s not who these commercials are for. What is a teenager going to think? What did teenagers think when people smashed up a kitchen after smashing an egg in the 1980s? They thought it was ridiculous.”
The most infamous anti-drug ad is likely one in which popular 1990s television star Rachael Leigh Cook smashes an egg to dramatize the effects of heroin. Cook later starred in a reprise of the ad, highlighting the connection between the War on Drugs and mass incarceration.
The Trump administration first declared the opioid crisis an emergency in October and has taken a few steps to address the crisis, which is now considered deadlier than the Vietnam War. The president has said that his focus is on enforcement, not treatment. Congress is working its way through legislation, but many have expressed concern that lawmakers are not addressing the underlying issues of addiction, let alone dedicating enough funds to the crisis.