The “Just Say No to Drugs” Campaign Had Its Roots in Anti-Communist Propaganda

The “Just Say No” campaign is remembered today for the huge quantity of kitsch media it produced, like McGruff the Crime Dog. But the campaign was based on the psychological warfare techniques of the Cold War.

Nancy Reagan (center), with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in 1990. (Levan Ramishvili / Flickr)

A few months ago, Twitter got a sustained chuckle out of the ill-advised — yet, somehow, also compulsively listenable — 1986 cassette McGruff’s Smart Kids Album. It’s a recording in which anti-drug spokesanimal McGruff the Crime Dog “sings” jazzy, synthy tunes about the dangers of alcohol, marijuana, and inhalants backed by a children’s chorus and some impressive studio musician chops.

McGruff and his musical explorations were but one of the many expressions in 1980s American media of a larger “just say no to drugs” public information campaign, one that enlisted everyone from sitcom stars to cartoon characters to First Ladies in an effort to wipe out the use of illegal drugs and alcohol in the young. The commonly accepted story — that the “just say no” slogan spontaneously originated with a visit First Lady Nancy Reagan made to a school shortly after her husband took office — is a bit disingenuous.

The Just Say No campaign was the culmination of many threads of postwar public opinion shaping that have their roots in both the American military-industrial complex and big business’s uses of mass psychology and media to enforce ideological conformity during the Cold War. Primary among these was, and still is, the Ad Council.

The Ad Council originated during World War II as the War Advertising Council, which redirected America’s massive peacetime domestic consumption propaganda apparatus — the advertising industry — to promoting war bonds and other publicity campaigns for the war effort. In peacetime, its mission changed to “public service” and matched well with the new medium of television. In addition to its work for Cold War propaganda efforts such as the US Information Agency, the Ad Council pioneered the postwar TV “public service announcement” (PSA).

The Ad Council was the Madison Avenue brain trust responsible for famous PSA campaigns like Smokey the Bear, the “crying Indian” anti-pollution ads of the 1970s, and the United Negro College Fund’s series of “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” television spots. The Ad Council also facilitated the creation of McGruff the Crime Dog in 1980, thanks to the contribution of veteran ad man Jack Keil, who also voiced McGruff in commercials and on the aforementioned cassette. McGruff’s remit was public safety and kids, so he became a natural for the Just Say No message.

The Just Say No campaign was designed thanks to a public relations/mass psychology approach known as inoculation theory. Inoculation theory originated in the aftermath of the Korean War, when US defense officials and psychologists believed that American defectors to the Communist side of the conflict had been “brainwashed” by their Chinese captors. These widespread fears during the 1950s Red Scare — based on the premise that no “real” American could ever see the logic and reason of joining the Reds — led opinion makers and national security officials to look for a way to prevent “conversions” like these.

Psychologist William J. McGuire coined “inoculation theory” in the early 1960s in a series of research papers, noting that

we would develop the resistance to persuasion of a person raised in an ideologically aseptic environment by pre-exposing him to weakened forms of the counter-arguments, or to some other belief-threatening material strong enough to stimulate, but not so strong as to overcome, his belief defenses . . .

just like the weakened form of a virus.

In the terms of the typical tropes of 1980s Just Say No propaganda, the weak inoculating factor usually takes the form of a peer on a child-friendly sitcom, after-school special, or PSA offering drugs to a main character — who is already known by the viewer and thus their proxy — using a number of familiar yet easily refuted arguments for taking drugs (“it feels good,” “everyone’s doing it,” “just try it once”).

Over the course of the episode or PSA, the viewer proxy might receive support and advice from authority figures or peers on precisely how to “just say no,” but in the end, the decision and action is taken by the character for themselves, demonstrating individual strength and independence in the face of communal peer temptation. In the process, the viewer has also been “inoculated” with counterarguments to use in their own real-life encounters.

The ubiquity of Just Say No led to parallel campaigns in the 1980s, some of which were organized by local law enforcement. Most famous of these is probably Los Angeles Police chief Daryl Gates’s Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.), which went nationwide but had its roots in Gates’s own militarized war on drugs and gangs.

Of course, we now know a few decades later what happens to a generation raised on these kinds of messages — a fully enshrined carceral state championed by both Republicans and Democrats since the 1980s that continues to incarcerate and oppress people of color in the face of a widening acceptance of drug legalization and an opiate plague that has devastated communities from coast to coast (it’s much tougher to “just say no” to a doctor’s prescription backed by Big Pharma funding, after all).

Just Say No left behind a series of cultural artifacts and memories that evoke the conservative Reaganite desire to turn back the clock, but they also demonstrate that the union of big business, the military, law enforcement, and the makers of capitalist propaganda in the ad industry can still be turned to the manufacturing of consent for any number of ideological projects — and that in order to do so, they’ll always start with the young.