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.

When Pokémon Sent Hundreds of Viewers to the Hospital

Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images
Warner Bros. Pictures/Getty Images

By the time the 38th episode of the animated children’s series Pokémon, or Pocket Monsters, aired in Japan, it was a bona fide sensation, drawing roughly 4 million viewers weekly. One survey estimated that 55 percent of schoolchildren in Tokyo's Kawasaki school district followed the series. The show—which began airing April 1, 1997, and focused on the adventures of Ash and affable monsters like Pikachu in their attempt to collect one creature from each species to train for combat—was also a comic, a Nintendo video game, a trading card series, and more. The devoted fandom would soon spread to the United States.

But then something peculiar happened—so peculiar that it become the subject of medical journal research. The Pokémon episode that aired at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, December 16, 1997 depicted a cataclysmic explosion between thunderbolts thrown by Pikachu and a “vaccine bomb.” Red and blue flashing lights began to pulse onscreen. Though the sequence lasted only a few seconds, hundreds of children were stricken by an immediate and visceral response that ranged from headaches and dizziness to full-blown seizures. Japanese hospitals found themselves treating viewers for epileptic symptoms.

This wave of deleterious effects became international news. Never before had a television program had such a direct and immediate health consequence on its audience. Some people initially dismissed the whole thing as a hoax or possibly some kind of mass hysteria, but the physical reactions were genuine. What had made this episode of Pokémon so dangerous—even among those viewers not diagnosed with epilepsy? And could it happen again?

 

The potential for a television program to trigger seizures is rooted in how it displays light. Light displayed at frequencies between 10 and 30 hertz, or the number of cycles per second, is known to induce symptoms for a percentage of the population susceptible to them. The color red is also stimulating. When light is shifting from color to black and back again, nerve cells in the brain can fire electrical impulses rapidly, leading to convulsions. This is often referred to as photosensitive epilepsy, where certain visual stimuli can cause a seizure.

As a result, there have been a handful of programs that have prompted medical concern for viewers. In 1993, the UK had three reported seizures as a result of a commercial for pot noodles that used flickering light, prompting the advertiser to pull it from the air. A 2012 animation for the Olympics also triggered adverse effects for a reported 18 viewers. People don’t necessarily need to have epilepsy in order to be affected; they might have an undiagnosed condition, remaining symptom-free until viewing such footage. Others might react even in the absence of epilepsy, suffering headaches or other symptoms as a result of being overly sensitive to flickering light.

Mew and Mewtwo are pictured in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

In Japanese animation, the strobe effect was obviously not intended to cause distress. Animators considered it a technique, which they dubbed paka paka, and which was intended to communicate to the viewer a sequence of high intensity. In “Denno Shenshi Porigon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”), the Pokémon episode that became infamous, Pikachu’s attempt to free a monster named Porygon from a digital prison results in his being attacked by computer virus missiles. Throwing his thunderbolt attack, he intercepts the missiles and creates a paka paka explosion augmented by another technique known as flash, which accentuates bright and flashing lights. The frames in the sequence were alternating at 12 hertz—well within the window to cause problems.

The scene, which occurred roughly 21 minutes into the episode, is what prompted individuals with photosensitive epilepsy to react. Statistically, it made sense. It’s believed that one in every 4000 people are vulnerable to the condition. With 4 million people watching, 1000 of them could conceivably have been struck with symptoms. A reported 618 people were hospitalized for treatment. Some even wound up in intensive care with breathing problems.

That such a sizable number were in need of attention did not go unnoticed, particularly since it was the result of a children’s show. The story was covered by the late-evening newscasts in Japan, some of which inexplicably decided to air footage of the episode, which provoked more photosensitive reactions. By Wednesday morning, the Pokémon incident was the talk of Japanese schoolyards, with kids being asked if they had been struck down by the cartoon.

 

It took science some time to figure out why this sequence had been so particularly consequential, even among those who weren’t epileptic. As it turned out, the typical living environment in some areas of Japan was partly to blame. In small living rooms often dominated by large television screens, kids were confronted with a towering and flickering image. Some even sat close to the screens, compounding the potentially negative effects of the sequence. Children are also more susceptible to epileptic seizures, and kids were Pokémon's target audience. The length of the sequence, which was roughly six seconds, and its heavy emphasis on the color red may have also played a part.

Hospitals who were sent questionnaires by researchers reported that many of the children treated were not diagnosed with epilepsy, though the incident seemed to precede a diagnosis. One letter to the editor published in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2004 stated that of 91 patients evaluated for Pokémon-induced symptoms, 25 had another convulsion within five years. Of 13 patients who were treated and had no history of epilepsy, 10 wound up being diagnosed eventually.

Pikachu (L) and Ash (R) appear in a scene from 1998's 'Pokémon: The First Movie'
Getty Images

Animators were flummoxed. The paka paka and flash sequences had been used before, though likely not in a program approaching the viewership of Pokémon. Police launched an investigation to make sure Television Tokyo, the broadcast network, was not somehow negligent in airing the program. They weren’t, though the consequence would be the same either way: No one would ever take the risk of airing “Denno Shenshi Porigon” again.

 

The episode was pulled from the series and was never rebroadcast, save for the news clips. The show itself was taken off the air in Japan entirely, not returning until April 1998 and carrying cautionary warnings. (When Pokémon was imported to America in 1999, the episode was predictably left out.) New broadcast standards in Japan were implemented that mandated the color red could not flash more than three times per second, with no more than five flashes per second of any color, and no flash more than two seconds in length.

That wasn’t quite the end of seizure concerns in popular culture. In 2018, some theaters put up signs cautioning viewers that flashing lights in The Incredibles 2 could be a problem for those with photosensitive epilepsy. Disney later reedited the film in the UK so it complied with the Harding Box test, which sets standards on flash and flicker rates for light and can reduce—though never eliminate—the potential for problems. The company is also issuing a warning for the upcoming December 20 release of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, stating the film has “several sequences” utilizing flashing lights.

Owing to the relative rarity of these events, it’s likely productions will continue to use flashing images, though producers of Pokémon would probably prefer to forget the 1997 incident ever happened. The episode has never again been cited and the character of Porygon disappeared, save for one fleeting mention in Japan when Hulu kept a preview for the episode at the conclusion of the previous installment. While it doesn’t contain any of the incendiary sequence, it might be the only surviving footage of the day television really was bad for kids.

When Disco Demolition Night Nearly Demolished Chicago's Comiskey Park

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Chicago White Sox pitcher Ken Kravec was warming up on the mound when he noticed the rush of people on the field. Preparing for a second game in a doubleheader against the Detroit Tigers, the White Sox had lost the first by a score of 4-1. The crowd had been rowdy and insolent throughout, but this was something else.

As Kravec stood on the mound, thousands of attendees descended from the bleachers and slid down poles marking foul ball territory. They dug up dirt in the field and began running off with bases. A few tried removing home plate. Kravec soon joined his teammates in the dugout, where both the White Sox and the Tigers were staring in disbelief at the mayhem.

The source of their unrest was happening in center field. It was a bonfire made up of thousands of records, mostly disco, that the team had invited fans to bring with them for a reduced admission price. Management had expected perhaps 35,000 people. Nearly 50,000 showed up. On July 12, 1979, Disco Demolition Night would go down as one of the most infamous evenings in the history of Major League Baseball. It was not only the destruction that stirred controversy, but the concern that the demonstration had a far more disturbing subtext.

 

In the mid- to late-1970s, attendance at many major league baseball stadiums was down. Teams around the country tried a variety of stunts to stir interest, including Cleveland’s notorious 10-cent beer night in 1974 that sparked a mountain of misbehavior. The White Sox were in particularly dire need of something to reinvigorate their franchise. In 1979, an average of just 10,000 to 16,000 people were coming to their games, though Comiskey Park could seat 45,000.

Team owner Bill Veeck tried to turn the games into a spectacle. There was a scoreboard that could set off pyrotechnics and other attention-grabbing additions, but nothing seemed to stick. The action on field was equally tepid. Midway through the season, the Sox held a disappointing 35-45 record.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

Veeck’s son, Mike Veeck, was assistant business manager for the team. Like many Chicago residents, he had heard local radio shock jock Steve Dahl on WLUP, an FM rock station serving the area. Dahl was prone to disparaging the then-popular genre of disco on air, playing records and then keying up an explosion sound effect. Dahl had lost his previous job on WDAI after it went all-disco, giving him an origin story of sorts for his contempt.

Dahl, of course, wasn’t entirely alone in his disco dismissal. A trendy and dance-friendly format, disco had been dominating airwaves and Billboard charts, with Donna Summer and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on heavy rotation and acts ranging from KISS to the Rolling Stones recording disco singles. Even 1977’s Star Wars scored a hit with a disco tie-in album. In the first half of 1979, 13 of the top 16 tracks were disco. Rock enthusiasts like Dahl thought the genre was inferior to their preferences and decried its widespread success.

Though Veeck had no particular opinion about disco, he saw an opportunity to partner with Dahl for a stunt. At Comiskey Park, attendees could get in for just 98 cents if they brought in one disco record for what was dubbed Disco Demolition Night. Once employees collected the records, Dahl would appear between the doubleheader with the Tigers and proceed to queue up an explosion.

Dahl agreed and promoted the appearance heavily on the air. The Veecks contacted Chicago police and asked for increased security as they expected up to triple their usual attendance as a result of the promotion—upwards of 35,000 people. With interest in the Sox low all season, it’s not clear that authorities took the request seriously.

They should have. Come July 12, people began lining up for the evening doubleheader as early as 4 p.m. A cursory glance at the crowd revealed that many of them were not baseball fans. There were a large number of teenagers as well as several attendees wearing concert T-shirts, a hint that the promotion had attracted people looking for a spectacle rather than a sporting event. Inside, many clung to their records instead of tossing them in the bins near the gates. As seats began filling up inside, thousands of people were armed with vinyl records. The scene had the makings of an active demonstration, not a passive entertainment.

As the White Sox and Tigers played their first game, spectators began tossing drinks and records onto the field. Chants of “disco sucks” filled the stadium. Firecrackers snapped in the air. When the game wrapped, Dahl emerged on the field in military fatigues, while a pile of disco records sat in center field. Inciting the crowd more, Dahl grabbed a microphone and let loose anti-disco invective before giving the signal to immolate the records. A fuse was lit and soon the pile was on fire.

Rather than pacify the crowd, the sight of the blaze seemed to embolden them. Kravec and the other players watched as people swarmed the field, sliding down poles and risking injury by jumping from the deck to the grass. Records were hurled, sticking into the ground. People tried to climb inside the skybox occupied by the wife and children of team manager Don Kessinger. Cherry bombs were ignited and exploded. The air took on a smoky atmosphere of flying projectiles, with an estimated 7000 people—almost the typical crowd of a regular season game—trampling the diamond.

Some players armed themselves with bats, their nearest available weapon. Announcer Harry Caray took to the public address system to call for order, which went ignored.

The crowd, however raucous, was largely nonviolent and no fights were reported. When police finally arrived 30 minutes later to restore order, 39 people were arrested for disorderly conduct. A vendor with a broken hip was the worst injury recorded. The main damage was to the field itself, which had been cratered by the explosion.

With no other alternative, the Sox were forced to forfeit the game, though the team wanted to call it a rain delay. The only rain had been from the beer bottles.

 

The official attendance was reported as 47,795, though Mike Veeck believed the crowd was as large as 60,000. Many had climbed over gates and overwhelmed ushers, crashing the stadium and getting in without paying admission. Disco Demolition Night had quickly turned from a purportedly clever marketing idea to a nightmare. Dahl would later admit to being more than a little scared by the whole ordeal.

The forfeit was the first by a major league team in five years. Soon, Bill Veeck would be out as president, selling the team in 1981; Mike Veeck didn’t get another job in baseball for 10 years—both situations reportedly due in large part to the near-riot that had transpired. But that would not be the only fallout from the stunt.

A screen capture from footage of the Disco Demolition Night promotion at Comiskey Field in Chicago, Illinois on July 12, 1979 is pictured
The Museum of Classic Chicago Television, YouTube

As ushers admitted fans into the stadium, they noticed a number of the records being turned in were by black artists—not just disco, but soul, R&B, and other genres. Steve Wonder and Marvin Gaye were among the performers destined for the bonfire. Because disco was popular among minority groups including Latinos and the gay community, observers believed Dahl had stirred up something more sinister than a simple distaste for disco music.

“People started running up on me, yelling ‘Disco sucks!’ in my face, getting in my face, confronting me as a person that ‘represents’ disco, and there were thousands of people running around in this stadium buck wild,” Vince Lawrence, an usher at the stadium that night, told Yahoo! Entertainment in 2019. “I started going, ‘Wait a minute, why am I disco?’” Lawrence, who is black, was actually wearing a shirt endorsing Dahl’s radio station.

Later, Lawrence said he was surprised most of the media coverage had been about the damage done to the baseball field, not the undercurrent of the protest. “It was evident that it was seen as OK, because the next day it was in the paper everywhere, all over the news, but the biggest complaint about the issue was not, ‘Hey, why the heck is it OK to just actively destroy somebody’s culture?’ That wasn’t the story. The story was like, ‘Hey, the lawn on this baseball field got f***ed up.'"

In interviews, Dahl refuted any claims he had intended to stir up any racial animosity. He simply hated disco and decided to engage in the kind of promotional stunt common among disc jockeys at the time. But the controversy returned in summer 2019, when the White Sox offered a T-shirt “commemorating” the demolition stunt. The move was criticized for being in poor taste.

As a tool to diminish disco, Dahl and Veeck’s themed evening was somewhat successful. Radio stations took to playing less of it and record labels began to shy away from the genre, forcing it underground. Of course, it’s likely disco would have been a cultural fad regardless. But what is superficially an outrageous story about a sporting stunt gone awry has also been looked at as a rejection of what disco represented: a diversity in tastes and spirit. It's for that reason Disco Demolition Night remains an infamous black eye in baseball history.

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