When Harry Met Humility

October 23, 2020

Toward the end of his life, in 1965, Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous put forward that his program came down to two main precepts: humility and responsibility. Admitting one was powerless. Then doing something about it. Alcohol had been the catalyst, teaching humility the hard way, through humiliation. Learning the value of responsibility began by recognizing unmanageability for what it was: chaos. Yet, that was just the first step. Sober for years, and nearing the end, Bill W was talking about more than mere abstinence. To achieve serenity, he posited, one had to be humble and responsible. Grace was thusly earned.

When you were a boy you had loved watching Kung Fu on TV. David Carradine played a peace-loving Shaolin monk, Kwai Chang Caine, who wandered the old west confronting and confounding hombres and roughnecks with his Eastern Philosophy. Caine had great humility. Unfortunately, that was not a popular attribute in Tombstone. In every episode Caine did all he could to practice humility in the face of insult, bigotry and violence. Invariably, he would get pushed too far. A bad guy would step on his little grasshopper and that was it. Caine had no choice but to kick some ass.

Thank fucking God. Otherwise Kung Fu would have been a dull meditation on passive resistance. You accepted the show’s weekly lessons in humility precisely because you knew what was coming: fists of fury and flying kicks! There wasn’t a 12 year-old boy in America who didn’t feel the same way. The bullies liked the exotic fighting. You liked the revenge. Either way blood spilled. Humility wasn’t enough. Truth is, you’ve always known the difference between humility and humiliation. That wasn’t the tricky part. The first problem with humility was that it was for sissies, because they had no choice. That and it was boring. Bill W wrote AA is a program of action. Clearly, the definition of that word had to change too.

A man spoke at a meeting, named Harry. He was a bit older than you. Wore a rumpled suit. Thick glasses. He spent much of his allotted time talking about how important wealth had once been to him. He’d been a big shot and proud of it. The house. The cars. The stuff. Counting his money, measuring his worth. He drank to celebrate victories at work, over peers and competitors alike. Drank even more to wash away failures, which of course became ever more common. Yet, he said, when he finally did stop drinking, he became even worse. “Without alcohol in the way, I could really fuck people over.”  By his own admission, it took decades before he wizened up and acquired even a modicum of humility. Such was the intoxication of his pride. Listening to him share, you could still detect it. The way he mentioned his past achievements and former possessions, listing them like awards. Even after 30 years of sobriety and thousands of AA meetings he still couldn’t let go, not completely.

You could relate. You were always too quick to mention your past accomplishments, as if people were keeping score. Not so deep down you always felt they were.

Harry worked in retail now, far beneath his pay grade. Gone were the fancy cars, lavish homes and glitzy vacations. He found value by putting in a solid effort and going to bed tired. That’s what he said. He also admitted this was not easy for him. Many days he railed at his lot. Felt superior to his superiors. Beat him self up for all he had lost. Then, if he were thinking straight, he’d call his sponsor. God gives you what you need, Harry, the man would tell him. You’re responsible now. You’re practicing humility.

Most of the television shows and movies I watch contain a preponderance of alcohol, tobacco or drugs. Many of them are integral to the plot itself. Platforms like Netflix and Hulu (among many, many others), free and clear of network restrictions, opened Pandora’s Box in terms of sexual and violent content. To say nothing of the Internet.

Some of the most popular and/or critically acclaimed shows on any screen are predominantly about illicit drug use, alcoholism and related topics: Breaking Bad (Methamphetamine), Shameless (ETOH) and Euphoria (<ATOD) One needn’t be a pearl-clutcher to say it’s difficult finding mass-appeal content that doesn’t feature ATOD’s.

But I tried.

“PEN 15” is a serial on Hulu about two awkward adolescent girls navigating the perils of middle school. The conceit is that the two leads are actually adult women playing themselves from that time period. It’s actually pretty good.

In the episode I watched the two girls find them selves hiding in the girl’s bathroom at school to avoid bullies (a constant threat for them), when they find a cigarette on the floor. This lone cigarette proves to be a catalyst for all manner of awkward, ridiculous and potentially scandalous ADULT behavior.

Later, the girls are playing with dolls together when their entire childhood gets called into question. Old behaviors suddenly seem boring to them –childish.

They toss the dolls onto the floor and reach for the cigarette.

But in order to smoke it they will need a lighter. So the girls decide to dress up to look older and this becomes a whole scene onto itself. Using makeup they took from their parents and the “flyest” clothes they can muster, the “ladies” glam up in order to venture to the corner store in their neighborhood. They believe looking older is necessary in order to purchase a Bic lighter. There, one mocks a child who is line with his mother for being “with his mommy.” The two adolescents ape all manner of supposed older behavior –costume, makeup, attitude- all because of the still un-smoked cigarette they found in girl’s bathroom at school.

As it has been for countless adolescents, the cigarette symbolizes adulthood. PEN 15 (a combination of characters intended to mimic “penis”) is a coming of age comedy and the cigarette portends all that await these two awkward kids on the cusp of being teenagers.

The show then introduces another concept familiar to every kid who ever got the talk about ATOD: that smoking cigarettes is a gateway to even more scandalous behavior. The girls show up at the hangout of a group of 8th grade girls and ask if they can join them “to smoke.” The older girls invite them in. After a lot of posturing (in order to impress the older kids) one ends up chugging a beer. The other tries a whippet (inhalant) and passes out.

Not only has the still-unsmoked cigarette lead to alcohol and inhalants it has also presented the viewer with a classic case of peer pressure and its effect on young people regarding drinking and using drugs.

Then the boys show up.  In a painfully awkward scene each boy chooses a girl ostensibly to pair off and make out: the ultimate taboo! The two girls reluctantly pair up with two boys and, while they don’t “hook up” per se, the promise of illicit sex hangs in the air. We see brief scenes of the 8th graders canoodling in the dark.

A parent shows up and “busts” the party before anything else occurs. The two hero girls end up taking the fall for the beer and bad behavior. A be careful what you wish for moment for the two aspiring teenagers. Here, getting busted is also an iconic plot point in the age-old tale of experimenting with drugs. In shows like Breaking Bad and Shameless people get arrested or even killed for getting caught, Of course, in this story nothing like that remotely happens. The two are sent home to their mothers.

Handled briefly here, a poignant scene featuring one of the girl’s mothers frowning sadly at her daughter. She does nothing but walk away. Yet, her silence speaks volumes, more punishing to her child than a scolding. A parent’s disappointment is yet another trope in such stories (and in reality). The sad, helpless mother is an indelible part of the ATOD narrative.

The final scene of the episode has the two girls back in their playroom… pondering the unlit cigarette that started it all. They decide to put it away in a jewel box, saving it for another day. They resume playing with their dolls. Roll credits.

To be sure, the ending is sweet. Yet, it’s interesting to note that they do not dispose of the cigarette but rather hold onto it. The butt caused them nothing but trouble yet the trouble was a shared memory of an adventure that bonded the two girls. Romanticism is an inextricable part of ATOD’s.  Always was and maybe always will be.

Outdueling alcohol and tobacco with advertising is like bringing a knife to a gunfight.     

For over 25 years, I worked in the creative department at a number of big name advertising agencies. I was (and am) a copywriter by trade and began my career in that capacity, at the Leo Burnett Company in Chicago. During my lengthy tenure at that storied agency I wrote and produced copy for numerous alcohol and tobacco clients, including (in no particular order): the Phillip Morris company (now named Altria Group), Diageo (Wine & Spirits), Anheuser Busch, and the Miller Brewing company. These were and are Fortune 50 multinational companies spending many, many millions of dollars a year on marketing alcohol and tobacco products to any number of audiences, none more coveted than the youngest populations.

      Though federal and state laws were in place regulating the drinking and smoking ages of consumers, by definition mass media easily allowed advertisers to circumvent them. After all, a beer commercial televised on a football game could be seen by adults and children alike. Print media (remember that?) had more discernable target audiences i.e. Playboy and Esquire (adult males) Martha Stewart (adult females), etc. Outdoor adverting (billboards, bus shelters, and the like) had the unique benefit of being able to infiltrate very specific markets via targeted media plans. Putting malt liquor billboards in impoverished urban neighborhoods is a classic and controversial example of how easy it was for advertisers with money to influence the people who could least afford to drink and smoke – economically, sociologically, psychologically, physiologically and even spiritually. But hard times beget hard drinkers and heavy smokers.

      And we all knew it.

      Really, every department in the traditional ad agency (creative, strategy, accounts, media) was built to optimize getting the right messages to the right people. I spent my days crafting copy specifically designed for specific drinkers and smokers, existing and potential. I knew who they were: their age, sex, ethnicity, proclivities and so on. We all did. Our clients paid us to know everything possible about targeted populations. And they had their own people doing the same. Elaborate strategies were developed and implemented to move product. As data became more accurate and actionable, the ability to optimize reach and efficiency grew exponentially. Unsurprisingly, substance abuse disorders among these targeted groups routinely were in excess of national norms. The ramifications were not lost on public servants and various anti-drug/alcohol/tobacco groups.

      Consequently, in order to combat this growing problem, many governmental and societal watchdogs invariably found themselves playing catch up and keep away. Banning outdoor ads near schools and eliminating cigarette ads from many publications were two of the more significant regulatory measures put into place. On another front, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers and the Truth Initiative began calling for more stringent policies while underwriting marketing efforts of their own. Many of their efforts have been successful. For example, most teenagers no longer consider smoking cigarettes a right of passage. But many huge efforts were also huge failures. Recall the “Just Say No!” campaign?  It had the opposite effect on young people, perversely making illegal drugs the definition of cool. Getting folks to try something is a lot easier than getting them to stop. It’s not so much a matter of putting the genie back in the bottle; it’s getting the genie to stop drinking from it!

      Therefore, during our class discussion on prevention strategies for reaching and influencing people with either existing substance use disorders or the potential to develop an SUD, it became painfully apparent that these same strategies were (and still are) employed by advertisers to reach the very same audiences!

      For example: The Diffusion of Innovations Framework i.e. utilizing an influencer to create momentum behind a new idea is among the oldest saws in the advertising tool kit.  E.M. Rogers may have coined the phrase in 1962 but using celebrities to sell goods and services dates back hundreds of years, not long after the printing press was developed.

      The Health Belief Model we talked about (that messages will achieve optimal behavior change if they successfully target perceived barriers, benefits, self-efficacy, and threat) perversely mirrors the most common messaging strategies employed by marketers of beer, wine and spirits: Drink this and you’ll be in with the in crowd. Different agendas. Same conceit. “Good for you” can be spun.

      Advertisers are as interested in the Stages of Change Theory as any drug counselor, assessing someone for the likelihood that they might use as opposed to might not.

      And so on.

      Rules and regulations change. But human nature never varies. The theories driving many of the popular environmental strategies for the prevention of drug and alcohol problems are eerily (and necessarily) similar to the strategic marketing plans for alcohol and tobacco. When anti-groups have the most success effecting the environment via advertising it is when they employ the same levels of creativity, sophistication (and hopefully budgets) as their nemesis do. Like they say: fight fire with fire. Know your enemy.

Written for course at Berkeley Extension Certificate Program in the Treatment of Substance Use Disorders

Read Me, Seymour!

October 3, 2020

Author Unknown

You’ve written three novels. After years of toil, most of it pleasurable (an apt definition of writing), enduring countless maybes, the quite interested and even an option from Hollywood, you ended up self-publishing. Not the happy ending you envisioned, with heady book tours and glowing reviews on myriad websites. But parking your books on the computer like an old tax return? No fucking way.

“Years of effort” is actually an understatement. You’d spent decades on these novels. High art or not you knew they were high concept. Your first, The Last Generation imagined a world bereft of children, slowly dying out. Yet, and this was the kicker, nothing else was wrong. For the remaining shrinking population, life simply went on. What does this last generation do with itself? Your marketing line: It’s not the end of the world, just the end of us.

Your second novel is a modern fable about God and advertising, The Happy Soul Industry. In it, God, frustrated by a world lacking belief, puts an angel on earth to find an ad agency in order to market spirituality. In the third act all hell breaks loose.

Your third story, Sweet By Design is a romantic comedy (!) about a disillusioned gay man and an aging female socialite, brought together on an improbable road trip.  This one you wrote to prove you could be whimsical and, being honest here, entirely commercial. Whatever your motivations and inspirations, you never worked harder in your life than on these three books. In doing so, you developed a keen appreciation for even the shoddiest novels at the airport bookstand. Readers who weren’t writers would never comprehend, couldn’t possibly, the effort required to scribe 300 pages of anything. Thinking. Rethinking. Writing. Rewriting. Losing weeks of content. Fighting demons. Overcoming doubt.  And then, when you honestly thought it was finally done, the painful discovery of a typo on the very first page, then another and another, a repeated paragraph – How did that happen?  How many more things were wrong?

To be continued…

(If interested in any of these books please click on the links right side of this blog!)

Mustard Seed Epiphany

September 29, 2020

Start small…

.

“I had an epiphany.” Far from spontaneous, you are looking forward to discussing it with her.

“Do tell,” she replies. “I’m all about the epiphanies.” Mia peers at you from behind a large coffee mug. The image would make a good shrink Emoji.

“Do you know the biblical story regarding the mustard seed?

Mia nods. “It’s an allegory. Something about inauspicious beginnings.”

You snap your fingers. “That’s the one. The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed… I take it to mean great things can come from the tiniest of starts, like faith in God.”

“Are you born again?” Mia asks, feigning surprise. She knows you too well.

Her sarcasm does not deter you. “I believe we all plant mustard seeds knowingly or unknowingly. Acts of kindness. Helping others. Practicing these principles in all our affairs.”

“Okay…” Mia purses her lips. “But I’m not sure that constitutes an epiphany?”

“Hear me out. Most people think being of service means action. Something one does. Like giving money to charity. Meeting another alcoholic at Starbucks.” You pause. “But what if it also meant something you don’t do?”

“Like not drinking?”

“Exactly. But that’s only the beginning.” You polish off the last of your Red Bull, which explains your exuberance, part of it, anyway. “Not taking sides. Not criticizing. Not trying to be right all the time. Listening instead of talking. Not being that guy anymore.”

Mia nods. “I’ve noticed the difference,” she says. “Your anger has abated considerably since we first met.” She leans toward you. “I’ve told you this before.”

“But I didn’t really believe you. I’m suspicious of my own progress.”

Mia sighs. “You don’t accept praise well.”

“Never have.” Which is odd, given how much I’ve always sought it out. But I’m learning. Instead of deflecting a compliment by saying something sarcastic I’ve learned to say thank you. That’s my point. My epiphany. By not reacting I’m, in essence, acting. Does that make any sense?”

“Doing nothing is underrated,” Mia says. “Especially given the reactive culture we live in today.”

You roll your eyes. “It seems like everybody offends everybody. Trolling. Protesting.  Where does it end?”

“I’m afraid it doesn’t.”

“Well, it will with me.” You throw your hands into the air. “Let the world trample all over itself. I’m done.”

“Hallelujah!” Mia exclaims.

“Hallelujah.”