Varnish Remover

Just Say Yes—to ABC

Just Say Yes–to ABC

Hair Dryer/Never Easy, produced by Merkley Newman Harty for ABC TV’s public-service announcements.

ABC Television’s anti-drug crusade–March Against Drugs–has already been attacked in Slate as bogus propagandizing. Whatever the merits of the campaign, which includes public-service announcements and “drug-education” plugs in the network’s dramas and sitcoms, this piece of advertising works. Hair Dryer, the first part of this spot, uses a combination of laconism and high production values to appeal to both parents and children. Never Easy, the second, reverses field and feel with a talking head who, while almost didactic in her delivery of a simple message and a not-so-subtle push for ABC itself, is young enough, earnest enough, to strike a chord across her audience.

Cobbling multiple cuts of film into a snappy collage, the first 13 seconds seem to prepare you for a hair-care pitch, not a drug advisory. But pace and contrast set up a complex visual message before the first words are ever spoken. First the hair dryer, then the clutter of a young girl’s bathroom. The dryer blasting at a flipped head of hair, then a mirrored glimpse of a soulful pout. A full-length view of the girl, shot from behind in sharply faded color, then a less clearly articulated close-up of her face. And then the eyes, lidded, strangely knowing, lingering in the mirror.

There is a disquieting dialogue at work here, the play of color capturing the tensions of the chrysalis. Vibrant hues for prelapsarian innocence; bleached tones for the budding adult. A switch to full color accompanies the first words, spoken in a childlike voice-over: “It might not be easy to talk to kids today … especially about marijuana.” As the words begin, the colors fade, drawing you toward the obvious “it’s hard to talk to kids today because kids are no longer just kids” theme. But a fillip of clichés–the braces under the smile, the self-conscious glance downward–brings the kid back for the moment. The spot quickens–she’s almost done with the dryer … she’s almost outta here.

The spot briefly reprises the faded hues–the blond hair flashing gray, the lighting evoking a street corner for a moment–before focusing on ringed fingers and thumb turning the dryer off. The thumb ring, even more than the earrings that have been there all along, taps fertile ground, its associations with rebellion and the unwillingness to conform inevitable. From thumb rings to smoke rings wouldn’t be a long step, some would say–and the statistics show that for an increasing number of teens, the smoke is coming from marijuana. But this one hasn’t taken that step–yet. She’s standing stock-still for now, the voice that acknowledged how difficult it was for parents to talk marijuana with kids now asking, Camus-like: “But if you don’t do it, who will?”

This is the best witness and the most persuasive advocate: a kid, telling parents that their kids want and need to hear from them. As the first half of the spot ends, we notice the disclaimer crediting it to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The second half–actually the last seven seconds–takes a radically different, entirely linear approach, using a talking head: General Hospital’s Amber Tamblyn, who plays the almost-but-not-quite-redoubtable Emily Bowen (whose drug abuse–yes, indeed–“sparked shocking and tragic consequences” on GH this week). Tamblyn reiterates that marijuana is a sticky wicket, then suggests a way out–almost as a matter of course: Tune into ABC March 30, and “we’ll help.” Research shows that parents today want that help, that they lack the language to bridge the generation gap and persuade their teens not to do as they did in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That’s why this spot will probably succeed in its effort to make parents tune in March 30.

The other message, of course, is that ABC is au courant with the role of family values in politics today, and that it cares enough to turn over prime time to the anti-drug campaign. It has been estimated that ABC could lose as much as $1.7 million in March revenue just by running one 30-second public-service spot in lieu of its paid commercial equivalent during the network’s highest-priced hour of time (Tuesdays from 9 to 10 p.m.). The ratings-pandering and suspension-of-skepticism charges notwithstanding, the public is likely to give ABC some credit.

The contrast between the two parts of the ad shows why agencies are paid so much to be creative–the talking head wouldn’t have done quite as well opening the act. The spot closes with a chyron urging parental action: “Silence is acceptance.” Ennui is exactly what activists complain about: They say the ‘90s have seen a steep drop in the time and space donated to anti-drug messages, from $365 million to $260 million annually. Nancy Reagan’s much derided “Just Say No” seems to have had an effect on the kids it targeted–drug use actually went down. This time, it’s the parents who are being told they can make a difference. The gauntlet’s down, says ABC: Just Say Yes.

Robert Shrum