When Nancy Reagan Told Kids to ‘Just Say No’

It was an unusual display from a sitting president. On September 14, 1986, Ronald Reagan and his wife, Nancy, positioned themselves on a White House sofa and looked into a television camera to make a rare joint address to the nation. The topic? The government’s war on drugs—a scourge so destructive that the First Lady had made it her chief concern since her husband had arrived in office almost six years earlier.

Nancy declared that there was no “moral middle ground” on the issue, and implored viewers to be “unyielding” and “inflexible” when it came to confronting drug use. The president spoke about new regulations on mandatory drug testing for federal employees and increased budgetary spending on drug education. One in 12 people smoked marijuana, he said, and the crack cocaine epidemic was growing out of control.

“Just say no,” Nancy said, repeating a phrase that had grown into a rallying cry for her campaign against illegal substances.

More than a pet project, Nancy’s efforts to reduce drug use took her across the country throughout the 1980s. She dropped in on TV shows and led rallies. She teamed up with Clint Eastwood and Pee-wee Herman for public service announcements in movie theaters. She urged her husband to get tougher with drug offenders, leading to sharp increases in the prison population.

Several years into her husband’s administration, it didn’t seem like much was changing. But for Nancy, “Just Say No” wasn’t an obligation of office—it bordered on an obsession. The only thing missing from her impassioned address that night was a measure both she and her husband had endorsed: the introduction of the death penalty for violent dealers.

Following the acid trips of the 1960s and the marijuana escapism of the 1970s, Americans had developed new and worrisome tastes in recreational drugs. In the 1980s, cocaine had become a party favor on par with punch bowls, with an estimated 10.4 million users snorting the stimulant in 1982 alone.

“Crack” cocaine, a variation made with baking soda and water so that it could be sold as a solid rock to smoke, was a cheaper alternative that came into prominence in the middle part of the decade. Public service announcements (“This is your brain on drugs”) helped fuel awareness of the issue, which fed fears of juveniles exploring their curiosity with dangerous street drugs.

When Ronald Reagan came to office in 1981, he quickly swore to re-prioritize the fight against substances society had deemed both physically and morally corrosive. He campaigned with vows to stamp out marijuana. Harsher prison sentences awaited dealers; increased federal spending to slow the flow of the drugs into the country was promised.

For Nancy, the issue came down to intervention: She was determined to reach kids and stigmatize drug use before they were compelled to try it, a goal that may have been fueled in some part by her daughter Patti’s struggles with substance abuse in the 1970s.

The message needed to be clear, concise, and damning. Nancy told the media that it originated during a classroom visit when a student raised her hand and asked the First Lady what to do if anyone offered drugs. “Just say no,” Nancy replied.

It would be more accurate to say that Nancy was influenced by Needham, Harper & Steers, an advertising agency that was enlisted by the Advertising Council of media volunteers to come up with an anti-drug campaign. In 1983, the firm invited Nancy in to present their “Just Say No” theme, which cautioned kids to avoid drugs and for parents to educate themselves about their dangers. Nancy told them that the themes were "exactly right" for her crusade.

As a buzz term, “Just Say No” had its intended effect. The phrase became ubiquitous both in Nancy’s numerous speaking engagements and in a series of commercials. Later that year, she appeared on the sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, where Arnold (Gary Coleman) was investigating drug use for his school newspaper. “Just say no” was her advice to Coleman and anyone thinking of snorting, smoking, or injecting any illicit substances.

“Just Say No” had taken on the energy of a revival meeting. Nancy spoke at the United Nations, where she vowed to clean up America’s streets; more than 12,000 clubs sprang up around the country with kids pledging to avoid drugs; she addressed assemblies with thousands of attendees, sometimes accompanied by child stars like Soleil Moon Frye, a.k.a. Punky Brewster.

Other times, Nancy would use a celebrity to prove her point, not endorse it. When Madonna appeared smoking marijuana in 1985’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Nancy criticized the film for glorifying drug use.

It all boiled down to an admonition—simply refuse to use—and that’s where critics found Nancy’s strategy lacking.

Despite her hundreds of personal appearances and the ad placements worth millions of dollars, the Reagans didn’t appear to be gaining any ground. Prison populations went up as a result of increased penalties for possession and distribution, but drugs were still entering American streets. “Just Say No” was an authoritative voice without much substance behind it. Why, kids wondered, should they just say no? Weren't there differences between drugs? Hadn't their parents experimented? What, exactly, was the danger?

By the time the Reagans exited the White House in 1989, some critics were summarizing Nancy’s efforts as misguided. The message was simplistic and condescending, and no data appeared to show the campaign had actually had its intended effect. Instead of educating would-be users or addicts, “Just Say No” relied on parroting—a technique kids easily spot and tend to avoid. D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), a classroom spinoff of her efforts, was found to not make any difference over whether an adolescent tried drugs. Instead, the scare tactics that communicated that drugs were everywhere might have helped normalize them to some degree.

But not everyone agreed that “Just Say No” was ineffectual. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, 1.3 million people tried cocaine for the first time in 1981. By 1991, that number was down to 500,000. While Nancy may not have dissuaded young people from experimentation, the campaign may have contributed to awareness and motivation for at-risk youth to do their own research.

In the end, the Reagans did not see their expected results come to fruition. Nancy continued her anti-drug efforts after the couple left office, at one time under the shadow of her daughter Patti’s 1992 biography that claimed Nancy was once dependent on tranquilizers and sleeping aids.

Today, "Just Say No" exists mostly as a time capsule of very un-hip ads and questionable rhetoric. However the next stage of drug intervention materializes, it's likely that three syllables won't be nearly enough.

Spit Take: The Story of Big League Chew

Amazon
Amazon

Rob Nelson watched the kid’s ritual with curiosity. It was the mid-1970s, and he and the kid were in Civic Stadium in Portland, Oregon, both working in the service of the Portland Mavericks, a rogue baseball team operating outside the purview of Major League Baseball. Nelson was a fledging player who sometimes got on the field but mostly stuck to selling tickets and coaching youth baseball camps. The kid, Todd Field, was the batboy. And what Field was doing fascinated Nelson.

Field, who couldn’t have been older than 11 or 12, took a Redman chewing tobacco pouch from his pocket, scooped out of a bunch of gunk, and stuffed it between his cheeks and gumline. Then he’d let the black goo dribble down his chin or hock it in the dirt.

Chewing tobacco was a common sight among the athletes, but Nelson hadn’t seen many kids take up the habit so early. He approached Field and asked if he was dipping, the common parlance for stuffing tobacco in one’s cheek pockets.

Field hocked another glob of brown discharge at the ground. He showed Nelson the tobacco tin, which was full of black licorice. Fields had minced it up so that he could replicate the muddy color of the real thing.

The exchange planted a seed in Nelson's brain. As a kid, he had done something vaguely similar, stuffing his mouth with bubblegum to resemble his idol, Chicago White Sox second baseman Nellie Fox. What if, he wondered, kids could emulate their heroes without the health consequences or parental scorn that accompanied real tobacco?

The package for Big League Chew shredded bubble gum is pictured
Amazon

Not long after, Nelson found himself in the team’s dugout with Jim Bouton, a onetime New York Yankee who had been ostracized for writing a tell-all memoir, Ball Four. Nelson shared his idea for a novelty faux-tobacco product with Bouton, but with something of a twist: Instead of licorice, he would use shredded bubblegum. He might, he said, call it Maverick Chew, or All-Star Chew.

Bouton was intrigued. As the two watched the Mavericks players jog around the field and dip real tobacco (neither man had ever taken up the habit) they agreed it would be an idea worth pursuing. Nelson would develop the product and Bouton would try to get it distributed. Bouton would also be the sole investor, sinking $10,000 into Nelson’s idea.

The Mavericks disbanded in 1977, but the partnership between Nelson and Bouton endured. Nelson, who worked for a pitching machine company, visited Bouton after the pitcher signed with the Atlanta Braves in 1978, and the two conspired further on Nelson’s shredded gum idea. Nelson purchased an at-home gum-making kit that he saw an ad for in the pages of People magazine and got to work producing a batch of the stuff in the kitchen of Field’s parents. Hoping to mimic the tar-like color of Field’s concoction, Nelson used brown food coloring, maple extract, and root beer extract in the gum. The result was predictably terrible.

Despite a lack of a viable prototype gum, Bouton did his part by pitching the idea to several baseball-affiliated companies. (The former Yankee put his own likeness on the mock-up pouch.) Topps and Fleer, which produced bubblegum cards, politely rejected him. He eventually ended up at Amurol, a subsidiary of the Wrigley Company, one of the largest chewing gum conglomerates in the world. In a coincidence, Amurol engineer Ron Ream had been working on a shredded-gum project for several years. Rather than brush Bouton off, the company embraced the idea of a gum that would be sold in a pouch and was a play on kid-friendly chewing tobacco. They even liked the name Nelson had settled on: Big League Chew.

Ream had successfully developed a formula that solved the problem of the tiny ribbons of gum, using enough glycerin to make sure it wouldn’t stick together and become a useless clump in the package. Amurol, however, didn’t take to Nelson’s other big idea, which was to make the gum brown. While the chewing tobacco homage was obvious, they didn’t want to completely replicate the experience. The gum would remain pink.

In 1980, Amurol conducted a sample rollout at a 7-Eleven store in Naperville, Illinois. When executives came back from lunch, the 2.1-ounce pouches had sold out.

That first year, Big League Chew rang up $18 million in sales, capturing 8 percent of the bubblegum market. Amurol’s other products all together hadn’t totaled more than $8 million. (Nelson and Bouton received a percentage of sales.)

Nelson’s hunch had been correct: Kids loved the facsimile chew, which sold for between 59 and 79 cents a pack. Candy distributors in Orlando reported selling 25,000 pouches a week. Copycat products like Chaw came and went. Little Leaguers and amateur ballplayers could take out as much gum as they wanted and stuff the rest in their pockets. But the association with tobacco, which wasn’t meant to be taken literally, upset some parents. They feared Big League Chew could become a "gateway" gum—bubblegum one day, tobacco and oral cancer the next.

Nelson and Amurol took the criticism in stride. Nelson was often quoted as saying he personally detested chewing tobacco and considered this a solution to, not the cause of, a tobacco habit. A California bill that would have banned the gum, candy cigarettes, and other products meant to resemble tobacco died in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee in 1992. Kids continued to dribble grape, strawberry, and other fruit-flavored gum on their shirts. Amurol experimented with gum branded with Popeye’s likeness, colored green and meant to resemble spinach. It did not enjoy the same success.

Nelson bought out Bouton’s interest in Big League Chew in 2000 and has remained with the brand ever since, including a move from Wrigley—which was sold to Mars Inc. in 2008 for $23 billion—to Ford Gum in 2010. Sales have hovered around $10 to $13 million annually and there have been no confirmed reports of children being indoctrinated into a chewing tobacco habit as a result.

In February 2019, the package depicted its first female player. In the past, it has featured a variety of artwork and the likenesses of several retired players. In 2013, two active players—Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Cole Hamels from the Philadelphia Phillies (now with the Chicago Cubs)—were pictured. But despite its name, Big League Chew has never had any formal affiliation with Major League Baseball. The MLB has instead maintained relationships with Bazooka and Double Bubble.

The lack of any official MLB endorsement hasn’t hurt. At last count, more than 800 million pouches of Big League Chew have been sold.

Traumatic Episodes: A History of the ABC Afterschool Special

BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon
BCI / Sunset Home Visual Entertainment via Amazon

My Dad Lives in a Downtown Hotel. The Toothpaste Millionaire. Me and Dad’s New Wife. She Drinks a Little. Please Don’t Hit Me, Mom. High School Narc. Don’t Touch. From 1972 to 1996, no topic was too taboo for the ABC Afterschool Special, an anthology series that aired every other Wednesday at 4 p.m. Each of the standalone, hour-long installments highlighted issues facing teens and young adults, from underage drinking to the stress of living in a foster home. For the millions of viewers tuning in, it might have been their first exposure to a difficult topic—or the first indication that they weren’t alone in their struggle.

The Afterschool Special originated in the early 1970s, when programming executives at ABC had an epiphany: While there was a lot of content for families and adults during primetime, soap operas for adults in the daytime, and cartoons for children on Saturday mornings, there was relatively little content directed specifically at teenagers and pre-teens. The network saw an opportunity to fill that gap by airing topical specials midweek, when parents watching General Hospital might leave the television on and stick around to watch some TV with their adolescent children.

Initially, the network solicited a mix of fanciful stories and serious, issue-based melodramas. In the animated Incredible, Indelible, Magical Physical Mystery Trip, two kids were shrunk down to the size of a cell to travel through their uncle’s body. In Follow the Northern Star, a boy ushers a friend through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery.

 

Not long after the series debuted in the fall of 1972, ABC executives—including Brandon Stoddard, who was initially in charge of the show and was later responsible for getting the landmark 1977 miniseries Roots and David Lynch's quirky Twin Peaks onto the air—realized that the more puerile stories may have been working against them.

According to Martin Tahse, a producer on dozens of these specials, it was rare for older teens to watch programming intended for younger children. Pre-teens, on the other hand, would watch content meant for an older audience. By season three, the specials were largely made up of topical content. In The Skating Rink, a teen skater overcomes shyness borne out of stuttering. In The Bridge of Adam Rush, a teen copes with a cross-country move after his mother remarries.

The ABC Afterschool Special was an immediate hit, drawing an average of 9.4 million viewers between 1972 and 1974. Many episodes were based on young adult novels, like Rookie of the Year, which stars Jodie Foster as a girl struggling to find acceptance on a boys’ Little League team, or Sara’s Summer of the Swans, about a young woman searching for her missing, mentally challenged brother.

The series also sourced material from magazine articles, short stories, and other venues. For 1983’s The Wave, which originally aired on ABC in primetime in 1981, the story of a high school teacher who describes fascism and Hitler’s rise to power by successfully convincing his students to subscribe to a dictatorial rule, was based on the real experiences of Palo Alto teacher Ron Jones.

The effect of the topical episodes could be potent. For a 1985 special titled One Too Many, which starred Val Kilmer as an underage drinker and Michelle Pfeiffer as his girlfriend, one viewer wrote in to the Los Angeles Times to explain how the show had impacted her:

After watching the ABC Afterschool Special titled One Too Many, a story of drinking and driving, I realized I have taken too many chances with my life. I always think I can handle myself and my car after I’ve had something to drink. Nothing has happened to me … yet. I’d like to thank ABC for showing a program that could possibly save the lives of my friends and me. I’ve realized that drinking and driving is not worth the price of life.

 

As Tahse explained to interviewer Kier-La Janisse, the specials resonated with kids because they rarely indulged in what could be considered a fairy tale ending. “It had to be real,” he said. “If kids watched any of my three specials dealing with alcoholic parents, they were never given a fairy tale ending. I saw to that, because I came from an alcoholic father and knew all the tricks and I wanted the kids who watched—many dealing with the same problem or having friends who had alcoholic parents—to know how it really is.”

The shows also picked up their share of awards. One installment, the self-explanatory Andrea’s Story: A Hitchhiking Tragedy, won five Daytime Emmys in 1984, a third of all the Daytime Emmys ABC won that year. A Special Gift, a 1979 show about a basketball player who takes up ballet, won a Peabody Award.

By the mid-1980s, the specials attempted to strike more of a balance between morality plays and lighthearted fare. The 1984-1985 season consisted of seven episodes, including three comedies and one musical. In The Almost Royal Family, Sarah Jessica Parker stars as a teen whose family buys a home outside the jurisdiction of Canada and the U.S. In Mom’s on Strike, an overworked mother decides to suspend her duties until her family can appreciate her contributions.

Gradually, the specials began leaning back toward hot-button topics. Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Productions took over producing the series in 1991. That season, Winfrey introduced the episodes, including two panel discussions about relationships and race relations. Though the series did revert back to fictional narratives, it gradually lost its footing in the wake of shows that had a more adolescent bent. A “Very Special Episode” of Beverly Hills, 90210 or Family Matters was essentially a stealth afterschool special. The series was canceled in 1996.

That the show endured for nearly a quarter of a century is a testament to the craftsmanship of producers like Tahse and the support of ABC, who rarely shied away from difficult topics. Still, Tahse—who died in 2014—believed that the series' broad appeal went beyond that.

“The only rule of storytelling that ABC required we follow was … the kid always had to figure out what to do and do it,” he said. “No finger-waving by parents, no lectures by parents. It was a kid who was in a situation and found, through his or her own efforts, a solution.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER