Super Bowl ads are as anticipated as the football game itself – sometimes even more so. But little did the National Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse-St. Louis Area (NCADA) know that their locally aired PSA during Super Bowl XLIX would garner international attention.
Aired an additional five times during the local 10 o’clock news that week, the ad depicting a heroin overdose received a lot of criticism within the first 24 to 36 hours of its airing. Accusations of it being provocative and deliberately unsettling were common, according to NCADA Executive Director Howard Weissman. But then, Weissman said, the tides turned. Beginning on day two the comments turned from negative to mostly positive and NCADA’s efforts were praised.
In fact, the PSA went viral and the ad was viewed half a million times on YouTube by people in all fifty states and in 150 countries around the world.
“Despite the initial criticism and controversy, the ad did what it was intended to do. It grabbed the community by the lapel and woke them to the reality of heroin,” Weissman said. Now, he said, our community finally understands the gravity of the epidemic and people are asking how they can support the effort.
Last year, 404 people, mainly young people under age 35, died of a heroin overdose in the St. Louis area. While numbers are trending down, Weissman said hundreds of people are still dying and NCADA isn’t ready to celebrate even a small victory.
“If 400 people died from influenza or cancer in one town, there would be a national campaign to eradicate the cause,” Weissman said. “We need community support to get a handle on this epidemic.”
He also said it is important not to get lost in the statistics.
“The 404 people only speak to the heroin deaths. It does not account for the people actively dealing with the addiction or the families it destroys in its wake,” Weissman explained.
With Super Bowl 50 rapidly approaching, NCADA is in the process of filming its next PSA and is feeling the pressure to produce an equally powerful message.
“Our goal this time is to motivate people to take action,” explained Weissman. “We hope it is emotionally affecting and powerful, but provocative for all the right reasons.”
The new Super Bowl PSA features the Lafayette High escadrille dance team. Principal John Shaughnessy, acknowledging the drug problem to be no respecter of community, asked how the school could be a part of the PSA.
Sophomores Molly Gilbride and Montana Krieger are dance team members whoappear in the PSA. An actress is used to portray a fictitious dance team member who is addicted to heroin.
It was the reality of why they were doing the PSA that stands out most to Gilbride.
“I believe heroin use has become increasingly popular and needs to be stopped,” Gilbride said, “The director explained the point of the commercial, and some of the things he said about heroin were hard-hitting and I wouldn’t want anyone I know to go through that.”
Krieger said, “When filming this commercial, what really hit me was just how real it is. It’s in our neighborhoods. It could be going on with people I see and interact with every day. I see and understand more what drugs can do and how they change people.”
Weissman said heroin is not their only concern, although it is highly accessible in pill or syringe form for as little as $10 per hit. Between 75 and 90 percent of people who experiment with heroin began with alcohol, marijuana or the misuse of prescription opioids.
“It’s not a gateway to heroin in all cases, but any young person who alters their consciousness is at a greater risk of seeking a greater and more dangerous high,” Weissman said.
He also stressed that recovery exists. Thousands of people have maintained long-term recovery, he noted, including doctors, pilots, and business leaders. It is a difficult daily struggle choosing sobriety but he said it does happen.
“We are glad to be in the spotlight. The ad is about addressing one of the most important health crisis topics. To that end we are happy,” Weissman said.
But the sobering reality of why the ad is necessary, Weissman said, is nothing to be happy about. “Our big focus is this: How do we keep kids from dying?”