A cute teenage girl is washing her hair in the shower. Cut to a shot of blood running down the drain. The girl’s mouth drops open in a scream: sitting on the shower floor is a twin version of herself as a meth addict, hunched over, her body wasted, her face covered in scabs.
It’s disturbing and graphic, but it’s not a horror movie - it’s one in a series of hard-hitting public service ads created by the Montana Meth Project. Since the ads started running, teenage methamphetamine use in Montana has dropped 63 percent. On the CBS Evening News , a country district attorney says, “These ads have changed the consciousness of an entire generation of teenagers.”
It got me thinking about the power of media images. In old movies, the stars always smoked like chimneys, because smoking used to be dashing and sexy. Sometime during the ‘60s and ‘70s, the perception of smoking began to change. For a while, in ‘70s movies, smoking was the hallmark of a certain kind of antihero - the good guy who rebels against society’s stuffy rules, someone who might have personal demons, but who triumphs in the end. Then the portrayal of smoking changed again. In a modern film, when a character lights up, you immediately know he's the villain, or at least someone who’s a mess, or down on his luck. Not someone to admire or emulate.
If movies were still depicting smoking as a cool, sophisticated thing to do, if tobacco ads on TV hadn’t been banned in 1971, would American smoking rates still have declined by half since the 1950s? I wonder.
We’re in the same place now with processed food ads aimed at kids and teens (and at us grownups, too). Despite the health damage junk food causes, the ads keep showing us good-looking, energetic people hanging out with their good-looking, energetic friends, all having a fabulous time eating Pringles or Cheesy Blasters or what have you. We see fathers and sons bonding at the kitchen table over a plate of Oreos .
In my imaginary public service ads, we’d see stressed-out, lonely, overweight people stuffing down whole packages of Oreos in their cars, which, let’s face it, is closer to reality. Or, taking a cue from Montana’s anti-meth campaign, the ads would show a person in a hospital finding out they need to have their toes amputated because of complications from diabetes. “NOOOOO!”
Even if they started making commercials like that, changing our cultural perception of processed food will take a long time, like turning the proverbial ocean liner. A massive shift of consciousness has to happen before we quit thinking of junk food as cool, modern, convenient, fun-loving, heartwarming, healthy, and all those other associations implanted in our brains by so many decades and billions of dollars’ worth of advertising.
As I say, I’m not optimistic about this happening soon, but there’s nothing stopping you from shifting your own consciousness right now. Read my post “ Get An Attitude About Food .” Then, whenever you see one of those commercials showing attractive, healthy people having a wonderful time eating greasy, sugary junk, just remember there used to be ads like this one