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The National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws is highly critical of the White House's plan to place such emphasis on anti-marijuana in the Super Bowl messages.
Two of the Super Bowl spots are new work from Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, for the Partnership for a Drug Free America. The ads are part of a "negative consequences" campaign meant to show that marijuana is not a "harmless" drug.
One spot for the Partnership for Drug Free America features a 30-something couple worried about the implications of a positive pregnancy test. Only later in the 30-second ad is it clear that the worry is about their young teen daughter, who after smoking pot engaged in sex and is now pregnant.
"It's more harmful then we all thought," intones the voice-over about marijuana.
The pregame spot, also from McCann, features a young man stopping by a small memorial at the site of an accident that killed his brother. The crash was caused by a driver whose ability to navigate was impaired by marijuana. The young man at the memorial was the driver. The spot then claims that one in three reckless driving accidents unrelated to alcohol is tied to drug use.
At their end, all four of the campaign's ads prominently promote one of two Web sites -- www.TheAntiDrug.com and www.FreeVibe.com. The home pages of both Web sites feature anti-marijuana graphics.
Drug czar John Walters since last spring has been moving to increase the anti-marijuana tone of the drug office ads as part of several changes made after an evaluation of the campaign suggested it was affecting parents but not children. As part of other changes, the drug office is aiming at slightly older children.
The Super Bowl ads and Web sites sell the idea that marijuana seriously impairs judgement -- an emphasis that NORML strongly objects to. Allen St. Pierre, NORML's executive director, said that if the government really wants to talk about negative consequences of drug use, it should be talking about alcohol, not marijuana.
"The drug that causes the worst choices is alcohol," he said, citing fetal alcohol syndrome. "If I were at the beer wholesalers group or the Century Council [which includes distilled spirits companies] I would be worried. These messages could be just as easily targeted at the legal industry."
Shift in direction
During last year's Super Bowl, the drug office debuted ads that suggested illegal drug use supports terrorism. While new ads released in September shifted to a drug-related terror theme, the campaign began a further shift in the direction as the drug office put the bulk of its budget behind discouraging marijuana use by young people. This is the first ad in that vein from McCann-Erickson; prior anti-marijuana ads were done by Publicis Groupe's Leo Burnett USA, Chicago.
In one of the other new Super Bowl spots, from WPP Group's Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, New York, a man riding on a subway car sees the ghosts of victims of drug crimes who tell him the dealers were fighting about his money. "Drug money supports terrible things," the ad says.
In another, a little girl who could be from Latin America appears as a ghost to a female office worker to tell the woman that "you killed me." The child then goes on to explain that she was a victim of a drug dealer whose product the office worker purchased.
While the Partnership produces most drug office ads, the first drugs-and-terror ads were produced by the drug office's own agency, Ogilvy, without any involvement by the Partnership. The Partnership has declined to produce terror-related ads and has questioned their success, and the latest ads were again produced independently by Ogilvy.
Mr. St. Pierre said he finds it odd the government would spend money to warn about the impairing effect of marijuana when alcohol ads are running on the Super Bowl. He said his group will send a letter to Congress urging it to "stop squandering valuable resources."
Drug office public affairs director Tom Riley said there are already a number of alcohol-related advertising from public health groups and that the new ads are aimed at providing something similar for marijuana.
Puncturing the myth
"There has been a cultural movement to normalize the use of marijuana, and misguided conventional wisdom is that marijuana is harmless. These ads are designed to puncture that myth," Mr. Riley said.
"It is indisputable that marijuana use impairs judgement, [but the ads] help young people understand that it can lead towards a whole host of mistakes that will have negative consequences in their life," he continued. "Do young people make bad judgements because of alcohol? Sure they do. It's something we care about, but there is a large public health effort to educate about underage drinking. We want to do same thing for marijuana."