Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Winners Don't Use Drugs: A People's History

Robert Rath | 8 Aug 2013 16:00
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winners dont use drugs

The arcade campaign was the brainchild of FBI Director William S. Sessions. Sessions was a Reagan appointee, a former district judge in Texas, and had previously served as chief of the Government Operations Section in the Department of Justice's Criminal Division. He served as Director through the turmoil of both the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Branch Davidian siege, fostered the FBI's fledgling DNA evidence program, and automated the national fingerprint process. Though a conservative Republican appointee, his largest support was among liberal congressional Democrats who approved of his efforts to open the FBI to more women and minorities. Critics cast him as dull and procedural, but he did have one irregular streak - he was willing to reach out to youth through unconventional advertising.

Strangely, he actually had a background for connecting with teens. Sessions, and his family, had a history of working with young people through the Boy Scouts of America. Sessions himself was an Eagle Scout and his father had written the Scouts' first God and Country handbook. Little wonder, then, that Sessions understood how easy it is to speak to youth through fun activities. In 1989 he contacted Robert Fay of the American Amusement Machine Association and opened negotiations to put PSA messages on arcade machines. By the time Sessions was done, 17 of the 20 major arcade manufacturers had signed up to use "Winners Don't Use Drugs," on their attract screens. However, the real coup was in the foreign games - all imports had to carry the message by law.

In concept, the idea was innovative - even brilliant. At a time when most government officials were at antagonistic toward games and their effect on children, the head of the nation's premier law enforcement agency chose to coopt the medium in order to deliver a message. Putting "Winners Don't Use Drugs" on arcade screens not only created a positive association with the message - there's a reason we all remember it fondly - but it transported the catchphrase directly into a major gathering spot for young people. Remember, this was the 1980s and '90s, when the arcade was a place children and teens could gather with minimal parental supervision. In fact, there were some in the establishment that looked on arcades as places that might expose kids to drugs. Video arcades featured prominently in anti-drug PSAs, including Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue, which not only featured kids sparking up a joint behind the machines, but preparing to smoke crack (yes, you read that right - crack, inside a video arcade). "Winners Don't Use Drugs" not only offered a catchy phrase, it reminded kids that though they might be away from their parents, the hand of authority could still reach them.

The graphic itself is a masterpiece. Its stern simplicity gets your attention and holds it - a simple FBI logo on a blue or black background. The text itself seems designed specifically with game players in mind. "Winners Don't Do Drugs," was so powerful because it was written on a machine that you approached with the intention to win. Winning the game was the reason players were there, the word describes the ultimate state of success in the arcade world. Sessions' message didn't try and scare its target audience like most PSAs, instead it suggested that drugs could hold them back from achieving what they wanted. It was a much more realistic message than "Just Say No," or other campaigns that threatened the target audience with homelessness or death if they smoked something illicit. By incorporating the word "Winners" into the message, Sessions showed a savvy about game culture most politicians still don't possess. The campaign was so innovative that the EPA stole it a few years later for their "Recycle It, Don't Trash It!" campaign, which never gained the same cultural momentum.

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