Cartoons on Drugs: Animation and America’s War on Drugs | Animation/Propaganda

Drugs are bad. In America, over 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2017 alone. Since 1990, annual drug-related deaths have tripled and nearly 21 million people suffer from some form of substance dependency. There is a crisis, an epidemic, and to combat
this America did what it does best. It declared war. Hello and welcome to Animation/Propaganda.
So far, we’ve explored the history of propaganda as well as American animation and now it’s
time to see how they’ve join forces in the face of drug use and abuse. Yes, we are going to be looking at the history
of America’s War on Drugs, who it helps and who it hurts, and the role animation has
played. Drug addiction in America is nothing new. 
At one point, Heroin was an active ingredient in children’s cough syrup and Cocaine could
be purchased in the Sears catalogue. This changed in 1914 with the passing of the
Harrison Narcotics Tax Act. Drug use had increasingly become linked to crime, with a New York Times
article claiming cocaine was causing southern black men to rape white women, while Chinese
immigrants were accused of using opium to seduce them. Classic scapegoating, atrocity stories. This fear-mongering aided the passing of the
act, which regulated and taxed narcotics as well as limited access to them.
While fines could be imposed, the Harrison Act did little to punish those who violated
it however. To allow police intervention and criminal prosecution, the Uniform State Narcotic
Drug Act was introduced in 1934. This is notable for the inclusion of cannabis alongside habit
forming drugs. States were slow to adopt the act and so Harry
J. Anslinger, head of Federal Bureau of Narcotics, launched a propaganda campaign to demonize
cannabis. He received considerable help from William Randolph Hearst and his media empire. 
Hearst ran Anslinger’s atrocity stories under the guise of police reports claiming
cannabis drives those who smoke it to murder. He also, of course, leaned heavily into racism,
repeating the same tired claims of assaults against whites.
Many believe Hearst’s interest in prohibiting weed stem from his timber holdings and the
fact that hemp could be used as a cheaper replacement for the paper pulp used to print
his newspapers. Regardless of intent, his efforts would be
successful and in 1937, the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, which effectively barred the
selling and possession of cannabis. This act would be deemed unconstitutional
and was repealed and replaced with the Controlled Substance Act in 1970. This categorized drugs
based on abuse potential and medical use. It also expanded the power of law enforcement
agencies and led to establishing the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA, in 1973. 
This was all done at the behest of President Richard Nixon. I wonder why? The Advertising, or Ad, Council is a nonprofit producer of public service announcements.
Founded in 1942, it initiated campaigns during the Second World War, encouraging the purchase
of war bonds and warning those privy to information that loose lips, sink ships.
They would shift their efforts towards conservation with the creation of their most enduring campaign,
Smokey Bear, in 1944. An homage of the famous Lord Kitchener Wants You! poster, Smokey discourages
the spread of wildfires by pointing at the viewer, reminding us, that only we can prevent
them. The 1960s brought a period of public unrest.
Crime became a political issue as conservative politicians framed the Civil Rights Movement
as a threat to national security. In 1965, riots broke out in the Los Angeles
neighbourhood of Watts following the police’s brutalizing of a black man during a traffic
stop. The National Guard was deployed to suppress the protest, in a scene that would be repeated
several times throughout the decade. This, coupled with mass opposition to the
Vietnam War and the assassinations of political figures, divided the country. Elected in 1968, President Richard Nixon promised to restore law and order to America. As we’ve
seen, under Nixon, the Controlled Substance Act was passed but he also declared The War
on Drugs. According to his counsel, John Ehrlichman, Nixon used the new laws to disrupt the political
efforts of leftists and people of colour, by associating their movements with drugs
and demonizing them in the eyes of the public. These tactics and policies did little to curb
the rise of crime and in 1977 the Department of Justice enlisted the help of the Ad Council
to raise public awareness on the issue. Believing overt fear mongering was not the
way to go, the Ad Council set out to inform citizens everyday ways they themselves could
minimize crime. This was a similar message they had used years earlier with the Keep
America Beautiful campaign, which encouraged viewers to reduce their pollution.
Working with the same agency that produced PSAs for that campaign, the Ad Council began
developing an animal pitchman akin to Smokey Bear.
First coined was the slogan, “take a bite out of crime,” leading to the decision of
dog. The team went through several designs before settling on a hard-nosed bloodhound
detective who looked like he had seen some shit. 
A nationwide contest was held to name the mascot with McGruff the Crime Dog winning
out. The runner-up? Shurlocked Homes. Initially, He urged viewers to take personal
measures to prevent crime. These included locking your doors and reporting any suspicious
activity to police. His warnings expanded to include stranger
danger, bringing awareness to child abduction, as well as the risks associated with drug
use. The campaign was extremely successful, being
given over $100,000,000 in free advertising during its first year, with half of the population
reporting seeing at least one ad. It continues to this day.
In 2014, John Morales, one of the actors who portrayed McGruff, was sentenced to 16 years
in prison after police seized 1000 weed plants and 27 weapons from his home, including a
grenade launcher. Nancy Davis was an adequate actor, who found
work in supporting roles throughout the 1950s. Acting alongside some of the biggest names
of her day, she never quite broke through as a leading lady.
The same could be said for her husband, Ronald Reagan, whom she married in 1952. 
Reagan broke away from entertainment and grew to political prominence while campaigning
for Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964, delivering a rousing speech
that highlighted small government and individual freedom. 
Goldwater would lose the election in one of the largest landslides in history.
Nevertheless, The Speech capitulated Reagan into the conservative consciousness. He was
nominated as the Republican candidate for governor of California, which he won in 1966,
and would be elected president in 1980. Regan escalated Nixon’s War on Drugs by
increasing the penalties for cannabis-related crimes and instilling mandatory minimum sentences
for drug offences. Under Reagan, incarcerations skyrocketed,
particularly among people of colour. So much so, the government could not handle the influx
of prisoners leading to the development of the private, for-profit prison industry. 
Ronnie’s militant approach was complimented by Nancy’s championing of the ‘Just Say
No’ movement. Just Say No was a slogan coined to combat
peer pressure and encouraged kids to reject drugs simply by refusing them. The campaign
was adopted and promoted by many prominent figures in the entertainment world, from Mr.
T to Mario himself, Captain Lou Albano. In 1988, Hanna-Barbera produced The Flintstone
Kids “Just Say No” Special. This series reimagined the Flintstones as children and
in this special they are tempted to do drugs ahead of a Michael Jackstone concert, an obvious
parody of Michael Jackson portrayed by Kip Lennon. The special also features La Toya
Jackson, who was associated with the movement and appeared alongside many other celebrities
in the Stop the Madness music video. Just Say No paved the way for similar initiatives,
like the Partnership For a Drug-Free America. The PDFA was much more aggressive in its approach.
Their ads relied on shock and scare tactics, like the iconic This is Your Brain on Drugs
campaign. Unlike Just Say No, which preached total abstinence,  the PDFA sought to demystify  drugs
by presenting the gritty realities of addiction. Educational programs like D.A.R.E also began
touring schools. Studies found those exposed to or participating in these initiatives were
actually more likely to use drugs than those who didn’t. In a way, education is exposure,
and through zero tolerance policies, people were often just incarcerated instead of receiving
support for their addiction, all while the root causes of drug use, such as mental illness
or, in the case of dealing, lack of opportunity, remained unaddressed. 
In the end, Just Say No and the like offered simplistic solutions without really facing
the problem, advertising an ideal, rather than solving an issue. The Children’s Television Act of 1990 required
broadcasters airing children’s programming to allocate a certain amount of time to educational
or instructional content. Similar rules had been encouraged previously, with producers
tacking on moral lessons or warnings at the end of their cartoons. 
After all, knowing is half the battle. That same year, IP from various conglomerates
came together, free of charge, to combat drugs in the seminal Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue.
Funded by McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese’s, this made for tv special was simulcast on
all four major networks and would later be released on video, with an introduction by
President H.W. Bush. The story is simple: Michael, a teenage boy,
on the verge of drug addiction is encouraged to quit by his little sister’s favourite
cartoon characters. The cast includes, among others: Garfield, Bugs Bunny, Alf and the
Muppet Babies, with Patton himself, George C. Scott, playing the tempting Smoke.
Michael, who is casually using weed, is presented with horrific visions of his possible future
if he should continue using drugs. The cartoons convince him to stop and he manages to prevent
his sister from following in his footsteps. Cartoon All-Stars is not only notable for
the crossing over of rival properties but also for its song, Wonderful Ways to Say No,
written and composed by Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, famous for their work during the Disney
Renaissance. The special mobilized cartoon characters on
the frontline, but just how effective was The War on Drugs?
Well, not very. In fact, many believe The War on Drugs did more to harm and demonize
those afflicted by drug use than it helped them. While illicit drug use has decreased,
drugs once promoted as safe and non-addictive pain killers kill 130 Americans every day.
Now I’m not here to argue whether or not drugs are bad. They are devastating, ruin
lives and destroy communities. That’s not cool. However, the manner in which the government
has dealt with the issue of drug abuse has ultimately been ineffective in actually saving
lives. By using animation, they have also exploited children’s relationship with cartoons
to encourage them to shame those suffering from addiction while neglecting the root cause
of said addiction. Under the guise of public safety, The War
on Drugs was used to protect investments, suppress dissenting opinions and oppress minorities. It
was always about control. Take, Manuel Noriega, Panamanian dictator,
drug smuggler and close ally with the U.S government. Being well-connected in Central
America, he fed them information and helped funnel support to Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
In exchange, he received cash, obviously, and tolerance for his drug trafficking operations.
The government knew he was bringing drugs into the country but the CIA kept him on the
payroll and looked the other way, because if there is one thing America hates more than
drugs, it’s socialism. In the next episode we will explore this hate.
Yes, we’re going to be looking at the two dominant ideologies of the 20th century, capitalism
and communism, and how they were promoted, or disparaged, through animation.
I will post links to relevant material in the description below. If you liked this video,
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over at As always, thank you so much for your interest in this
channel and thank you so much for watching!

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13 Responses

  1. Lara K says:

    Mcgruff really took a bite out of growing his own.

  2. Mélanges Volatils says:

    Really nice video.

  3. Zeta - says:

    you neeeeed a bigger audience

  4. Marmaduke Scarlet says:

    Great video! Of course, I’ve heard about the war on drugs, but I’ve never seen the animated propaganda before. I’m no expert but this seems well researched with excellent continuity. My only suggestion would be to slow your delivery a little, but maybe that’s just me.

  5. Andrew Milner says:

    Ah! That voice-over.

  6. ComandanteJ says:

    Fantastic vid, subbed.

  7. DroopySnoopy says:

    This is really well put together, nice job!

  8. Kinnon Rutherford says:

    Solid, this needs to be seen by more people

  9. Nick The Halfling says:

    I've been hunting for that DARE film at the 7:00 ever since i watched it in 5th grade. Can you point me towards where I can find it?

  10. Devin Owpaluk says:

    Why do they have to knock weed 🙁

  11. NuStiuFrate says:

    I feel like i watched the video on 1.5 speed. Great content but maybe slow down a bit so it's easier to take in the info? Maybe i'm just slow in the head, i dunno.

  12. 123string4 says:

    Great documentary short however some advice for the future, your voice has way too much bass, putting a lowpass filter around 300Hz will make the audio fluctuations much smoother.

  13. EndureTemptation says:

    The voice and diction needs more work.

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