10 Classic Public Health Commercials

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In early March 2012, a federal judge ruled it would be unconstitutional for the U.S. government to order cigarette manufacturers to put graphic warning labels on cigarette packs sold in the U.S. By coincidence, a couple of weeks later the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention unveiled a $54 million campaign of anti-smoking commercials. The commercials, airing on both TV and the Internet, feature graphic depictions of smokers who have lost limbs, their voice boxes or suffered debilitating strokes, and the campaign is already being hailed for its strong production values and effective message.

That brings to mind some great and not-so-great public health commercials from the past. Here are 10 interesting anti-drug and public health messages through the years. (Warning: Given the graphic nature and subject matter of these commercials, this story is intended for mature audiences.)


10. MADD Airs Strange Commercial on Drunk Driving

Here’s a Mothers Against Drunk Driving ad that aired in the Edmonton, Canada area.


9. American Medical Association Ad Targets Marijuana

This American Medical Association public service message from the late 1960s explains why marijuana is bad for you. Flash forward to 2009, when the AMA asked the federal government to review its strict laws against marijuana, to facilitate more research into the medicinal benefits of the weed. The AMA has been careful to point out that it does not endorse the legalization of marijuana, or any medicinal-use programs that have been approved in many states.


8. Pee Wee Herman Speaks Out On Crack

Pee Wee Herman is not the first person you’d associate as an anti-crack spokesperson, but he was one of several celebrities to participate in this public service campaign. The commercial’s background — what appears to be a darkened movie theater, which evokes a forgettable chapter from the actor’s life — seems a bit weird in hindsight.


7. Hanna-Barbera Cartoon Warns About Drugs

When you think of Hanna-Barbera, you probably think first of the many classic cartoons the company created, most notably Scooby-Doo, The Flintstones and The Jetsons. Here’s a cryptic anti-drug PSA cartoon H-B aired in 1970. Not sure kids in the target audience for H-B cartoons could grasp the full message in this PSA, but give the company credit for trying.


6. World War II Training Film Offers Advice on Protection

Not sure what to say on this one, except thank goodness for penicillin and public health education efforts.


5. Swine Flu Commercial Promotes Ill-Fated Policy

In 1976, some public health officials feared the swine flu would become an epidemic in the United States, mirroring the deadly flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed tens of millions worldwide. The government launched an extensive public information campaign that convinced some 40 millions Americans to get a swine flu vaccination. Yet the government halted the vaccination program after 10 weeks when it appeared the vaccine increased the risk of people contracting Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare and sometimes fatal neurological condition. More than 500 people may have contracted Guillain-Barre as the result of the vaccination, and 25 people died. As for the swine flu itself, it resulted in one confirmed death. Public health officials today worry that older Americans who remember what came to be known as the “Swine flu debacle” will be much less likely to get inoculated in the face of future flu threats.


4. Actress Goes Berserk in Anti-Heroin Commercial

Actress Rachael Leigh Cook, best known for her lead role in the 1999 romantic comedy She’s All That, earned acclaim for this violent performance the year before in an anti-drug commercial. The Partnership For A Drug-Free America (now the Partnership at Drugfree.org) sponsored the “This is Your Brain on Drugs” ad.


3. Dog Talks to His Owner About Drug Use

Not all anti-drug PSAs are doom and gloom, as the lighter approach in this commercial shows. There is no confirmation on this, but the dog sounds suspiciously like Michael J. Fox.


2. Clint Eastwood Bashes Crack

Clint Eastwood, who tossed off so many classic quotes in films throughout the 1970s and ’80s (Go ahead — make my day), drops one more in this public service announcement about crack cocaine: “If you’ve gotta die for something, this sure as hell ain’t it.”


1. Controversial Commercial Shows Dangers of Texting and Driving

At least one study has shown that drivers who text behind the wheel are more dangerous than intoxicated drivers, a point made in extremely graphic fashion in this controversial public service announcement that first aired in Great Britain in 2009. The excerpt is part of a 30-minute film that has been shown to students in the UK and became an international sensation when it first appeared on YouTube.


One More: CDC Anti-Smoking Commercial

In case you haven’t seen one yet, here is one of the aforementioned CDC anti-smoking commercials. Chances are you’d never heard of Buerger’s disease before seeing this commercial. Yet another reason not to smoke. The commercials are apparently making an impact with the public — the CDC reports that calls to its 1-800 QUIT-NOW helpline jumped from roughly 14,000 per week to 34,000 per week within a couple of weeks of the ad airing, and the number of visitors to www.smokefree.gov tripled.


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