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.