Saatchi & Saatchi recently launched a “Stoner Sloth” PSA campaign taking on teen cannabis use for the New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet in Australia, attempting to shame teens who get high by comparing them to a giant sloth. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it backfired in a big way.
The tone-deaf campaign depicts stoned teens as actual sloths in a variety of everyday situations and is meant to illustrate how cannabis can be detrimental to them both academically and socially, ending with the tagline “You’re Worse on Weed.” In “Passing the salt…the struggle is real,” for example, a boy named Jason is asked to pass the salt by his mother, but can’t seem to figure out exactly how to accomplish that. The cartoonish scare tactics are so over-the-top that not only are they ineffective, they may even encourage teens to spark up. “Life of the party …said no one ever” is, in some ways, the biggest headscratcher as it seems to promote the use of a different kind of drug that’s at least as harmful to teens: alcohol. In the ad, a group is shown laughing and having fun while holding red cups. When they attempt to engage the cannabis user in conversation, he is unable to contribute the group walks away, disgusted. While you could argue that anything could be in those red cups, young people everywhere will recognize the red cup as a symbol of alcohol at house parties.
The colossal failure of the campaign can be seen in reactions online, where it has earned a cult following, seemingly amongst stoners. There are parody videos, a seemingly endless barrage of jokes on social media and even a “Pass the Salt” Stoner Sloth t-shirt. Additionally, the ads seem to have driven traffic to the Colorado-based “cannabis solutions” site Stonersloth.com.
“The ‘Stoner Sloth’ public awareness campaign has been designed to encourage positive behaviors in young people before bad habits start, and motivate discontinued use of cannabis before they become dependent,” a (clueless) New South Wales Department of Premier and Cabinet representative said in a statement. “The campaign is designed to appeal to, and be ‘shareable’ among, teenagers, who are some of the most vulnerable to cannabis use. We know that younger audiences respond more to campaigns highlighting the short-term consequences of their actions.”
Well, you can’t argue against the campaign’s shareability. But its unrealistic fearmongering harkens back to tactics American PSAs mostly abandoned at least a decade ago and aren’t going to influence teen behavior at all, except possibly in the exact wrong way. There’s a reason Australia’s National Cannabis Prevention and Information Centre has disowned the work. Perhaps, as crazy as it sounds, the best way to curb teen consumption is to be honest about the dangers of underage cannabis use without demonizing it to such a comical extent.