How Ronald Reagan used Saved By The Bell as mind control to fight the War on Drugs
By Aaron Miller
First Lady Nancy Reagan walked into the Oval Office after returning from an anti-drug event with Girl Scouts in Malibu, California as part of her “Just Say No” campaign which had begun to acquire criticism. The similar D.A.R.E. To Resist Drugs and Violence campaign had recently been thwarted by a deadly combination of peer pressure and logic. A dare to not do something is not actually a dare. This logic terrified Nancy Reagan. It could conceivably destroy all simple “Just Say No” strategies. The President tried to console his wife while Vice President Bush interjected to offer his opinion. Bush discussed incorporating a mandatory drug education program into the school system similar to sexual education courses. It would teach the physical effects of drug use through science and the consequences of abuse through specific, factual examples. Bush thought this might be a more effective method than telling children to “Just Say No” if they have not received sufficient information about the situation.
The Vice President’s proposal left the President and First Lady bewildered. Reagan slammed his fist down upon the desk. He shouted, “George, I have no idea what you just said and, quite frankly, I don’t care. We’re going to war!”
Bush was frustrated but not surprised. He sighed and calmly responded, “Mr. President, technically we have been engaged in the War on Drugs since Nixon coined the term in ‘69. I’m not exactly sure how you want to proceed.”
The President looked at his distressed wife, thought for a moment, and said, “If we can’t tell ‘em to “Just Say No” we’re just going to have to get into their heads some other way.”
“But how?” Nancy asked her husband. “American children just want to be Hollywood stars and popular musicians… and they’re all on the dope!” President Reagan embraced his weeping wife then quickly replied, “I got it! I used to be an actor, remember? Let’s call the television studio executives, inform them of this disastrous peril, and let them work their way into the kids’ heads. They can use their TV shows to teach kids that drugs are bad and kids will listen to them because kids love TV!” President Reagan wiped Nancy’s tears from her cheeks and said, “Let’s call the young, hip new president of NBC’s Entertainment Division right now. His name is Brandon Tartikoff. We’ll let him know that we have to save the kids from drugs by weaving messages through TV sitcoms that are already idolized.”
The Oval Office lights dimmed and fog rolled in, covering the blue carpet. The First Lady saw her husband slowly levitate. He whispered solemnly, “We’re gonna win this damn war, Nancy. We’re gonna win.”
Tartikoff assembled the finest batch of creative minds on his staff to work on this project. They too knew the plight the nation was in now that the double-dog dare could negate all anti-drug campaigns, and felt their patriotic duty to use their roles as writers to keep kids off drugs. A unanimous decision was made to integrate situations of kids encountering drugs in everyday life into the finest show on television: Saved By The Bell.
If you were an American youth in the late eighties, it was in your DNA to adore this show. In fact, whenever a syndicated episode appeared on television, an entire generation would freeze their lives and relive the nostalgia. Plots involved harebrained schemes to make a little money, growing pains, finding and losing love, the search for identity, and hundreds of more fabulous clichés, and stereotypical characters made this show define the transition between the 80’s and the 90’s. It was a light-hearted show that aired on Saturday mornings and typically climaxed with the phrase “So that’s what Zack’s really up to, eh… Well let’s teach him a lesson he’ll never forget.” Saved By The Bell rarely mentioned larger issues or current events other than references to the new George Michael album or the LA Raiders. No profanity, no sexual innuendo, no violence. The ratings were too good to be true. President Reagan found the perfect propaganda. Nancy was thrilled.
Reagan understood that effective propaganda must be persuasive yet subtle. Therefore, he made the decision to only dedicate one episode per season to the War on Drugs from a “kid’s perspective.” Each episode would model what real teenagers should do when faced with the inevitable temptations of drugs in relatable, typical experiences. They were patiently spaced out from each other to avoid preachiness. They would send the message while blending in with the rest of the season. No one would be the wiser.
The first episode where drugs appeared at Bayside High is Season 2, Episode 9, “Jessie’s Song.” One of the six central characters, Jessie Spano, is struggling to keep her grades up so she can get into Stanford while performing in an 80’s pop girl-group. She begins to drink coffee all day but hates the taste, so naturally she starts taking generic caffeine pills (modern translation: Adderall) so she can study all day and dance all night. She spirals down fast and hard because she’s on drugs and that’s what happens when you’re on drugs. Always. This episode showed how even legal drugs can take over your life and won’t help you get into Stanford or land a record deal. Instead, you’ll probably become a little loopy and tired more often than usual.
The second episode is Season 3, Episode 21, “No Hope With Dope.” A cool Hollywood heartthrob films an anti-drug PSA at the school in the vein of “Just Say No” or D.A.R.E. The star eventually shows his true colors at a party when he invites the gang to smoke a joint with him. Instead of thinking that he was even cooler than they first thought, they are shocked and dismayed. They leave in a huff and will no longer participate in his hypocritical PSA. Nancy was especially happy with this one because it the gang turned down drugs immediately and ended the episode without any explanation as to why. Just Say No (Don’t Ask Why). It also shed light on why Hollywood bad boys make terrible role models, even though he was ostracized for trying to be nice and share his drugs. They also forced him out of the school so he is unable to do the PSA, which would have spread the word about drugs to millions of children who would never know whether he smoked pot, let alone his generosity with it.
The third episode is Season 4, Episode 10, “Drinking and Driving,” which involved the gang having a few beers, driving drunk, and hitting a light-pole. This episode detailed how drinking with your friends is hilarious, but driving under the influence can seriously damage light poles which is dangerous.
Once the gang underwent these rites of passage they never ever thought about trying drugs ever again. They narrowly escaped death, taught the youth of America it is cool to not do drugs, and went on to have desperate attempts at future acting careers. Everything worked out just as the Reagans had hoped. Their subliminal messages were effective and never noticed by the public.
Vice President Bush was the only critic. He thought it was wrong to manipulate children using their beloved TV shows, and with ridiculous cliché characters and situations it was impossible to properly educate on the dangers of drugs. However, even though he believed tricking and using children for any cause is morally wrong, he knew the President wouldn’t listen to him and was tired of seeing Nancy cry, so he decided to keep his opinions to himself. There were only a few more months left before Reagan was out of office and he thought it was best to just wait it out. Reagan once asked his opinion on this “war strategy.” He told the President he could never personally relate to the issue since none of his children ever had problems with drugs or alcohol.
After the series finale of Saved By The Bell, President Reagan determined that the War on Drugs has been won. He was ecstatic about his victory and awarded the young, hip new president of NBC’s Entertainment Division Brandon Tartikoff a Purple Heart and claimed he was one of the greatest American war heroes of all time. This gained some controversy from those who felt Tartikoff had not earned the prestigious award in any way, shape, or form. After his monumental speech Reagan was congratulated with thunderous applause from the NBC writers for saving the nation and their jobs. Nancy ran to her husband and leapt into the air for a high-five, where we are left with a freeze-frame shot.
Cue theme song and roll credits.