In 1986, McGruff the Crime Dog dropped his crowning artistic achievement: An 11-track album suffused with 1980s rock and new wave vibes, with every song dedicated to the horrors of drug use — and the joys of staying clean as a youngster.
Dubbed Smart Kids, the album was released on cassette, adorned with an image of McGruff in his signature trench coat (or, more accurately, a man in a McGruff fur suit), leaning against a brick wall. There’s also a message in small font, as if to reinforce the title of the LP: “SMART KIDS DON’T USE DRUGS!”
Which drugs, you may ask?
The heart of the tracklist focuses on the heavy hitters: “Marijuana,” “Inhalants,” “Cocaine & Crack” and “Alcohol,” with a distinct message about how usage of each will lead your life down a dark path. Other songs focus on more general themes, as with “Just Say No!” and “Make Your Body Last.” No matter the track, two things remain constant: 1) The gravel-throated crooning of McGruff; and 2) the glorious vibes of the instrumentals, replete with guitar solos, background singers and classic 1980s synthesizers.
In a parallel universe not so far from ours, this album would just be a goofy relic from an era when there were all kinds of goofy anti-drug PSAs that seem unintentionally hilarious in hindsight. But in this world, a near-forgotten song from McGruff’s 1986 album has clawed back into the zeitgeist, going viral via one simple lyric: “Using crack and cocaine… to get high!”
It’s a line taken out-of-context from the track “Cocaine & Crack,” and the phrase continues with the sentence, “That’s what you say you love — but it’s really insane, you could die.” In the chorus, McGruff laments the “terrible trouble” of the white stuff, warning that it’ll make a “mess of your mind” as a keyboard jangles in the background.
But on TikTok, the song has been reborn in ironic fashion, becoming an anthem aimed at all the people who wasted time and money on crack rocks and blow. The list includes Stephen King and a lot of original SNL writers, but credit goes to the original poster of the McGruff audio on TikTok, “Pinko Punko,” who used the lyric to make a gag about showing up at their high school reunion and having nothing to show but drug use. That self-deprecating vibe has struck a chord with others, including posters who actively struggle with addiction issues, self-medicate for mental health reasons or otherwise want to poke fun at the ubiquity of drugs — and our ceaseless cravings for them.
McGruff the Crime Dog was born from the mind of the late advertising executive Jack Keil, the creative director of the firm Dancer Fitzgerald Sample. It was the late 1970s, and with rising crime on the consciousness of many Americans, the federal government was looking for ways to use advertising to inspire people into action and prevent crime before it happens. It turned to the national Ad Council for help, and the task fell to Keil, who envisioned the dog as a counterpart to Smokey Bear.
It was one of many efforts in a wave of anti-drug campaigns aimed at families and young children, pushed into the cultural forefront by Nancy Reagan and reinforced by a worldview in which anyone who used drugs was a spooky bad guy who needed to be reported to the police. This is made more or less explicit in an advert for McGruff’s Smart Kids album: “[Part] of the purchase price of each cassette goes to place McGruff’s Drug Prevention and Child Protection Program in elementary classrooms around the country, thus providing a regular, consistent drug education program before the child has firsthand experience with drugs,” it reads.
But the fact that McGruff’s album has gone viral some 35 years later for all the wrong reasons is hilarious proof of how misguided those anti-drug campaigns always were. Research continues to prove that the “Just Say No” era of drug education, led by programs like D.A.R.E., was a massive waste of resources with very few positive results to show for it. In poetic fashion, many of the best TikTok “Cocaine & Crack” clips convey a wry existentialism over the fact that so many of the youngsters that Smart Kids tried to influence ended up growing into burned-out, understimulated adults with some really bad habits.
Elsewhere, the crack-and-cocaine gag is used to reflect on the pressures of adolescence, the insanities on the health-care system and the geopolitical horrors of the U.S.-funded cocaine trade in Latin America. But frankly, I’m surprised that the entire album hasn’t received more attention, given that it’s jam-packed with viral-ready hits.
My favorite is “Alcohol,” which sounds like a Steely Dan cut straight off Pretzel Logic (“It seems so very nice, but you’d best be lookin’ twice / Cuz you’ll have to pay a price — you’re gonna looooose someday”). The headbanger on the album is “Inhalants,” which uses bloopy synths to soundtrack McGruff as he intones “Don’t do inhalants!” again and again in the hook. “Marijuana” features a legitimately sick guitar solo, while the Miami Vice vibes of “Just Say No” make me want to gun a cigarette boat along the coast of Florida.
Unfortunately, listening to these songs doesn’t make me want to “just say no” — if anything, many of the comments online suggest, in semi-joking fashion, that these songs are perfect for doing drugs. (As one YouTube poster notes: “They had some balls making an anti-marijuana song with such a ripping guitar solo. Couldn’t help but reach for the bong.”) And in a way, it reflects the legacy of ineffectual anti-drug campaigns, which used exaggerations, falsehoods and fear-mongering in a bald attempt to condition kids at a very impressionable age.
The problem is, young people are more sophisticated than many adults assume, says Michael Slater, an expert on anti-drug messaging at Ohio State University. That means overstating the harms, especially of a more common substance like marijuana, can lead kids to question the entire message of an anti-drug campaign, even when considering more dangerous drugs.
The other issue is that, for very young kids, teaching about the harms of drugs can lead them to believe that drug use is more common and normalized than it actually is, Slater notes. “Kids want to be doing what everyone else is doing. So efforts that are low credibility in the first place tend to come back and bite you,” he says. “But you know, even very smart people with a lot of knowledge, both academically and in advertising, misstep on drug-awareness materials. A lot of pre-testing the message with real humans is necessary, because there’s so much you can get wrong without realizing you’re getting it wrong. The responses are very dependent on execution.”
The execution was so poor in the 20th century in part because of the moral-panic mentality and deep-seated racism that fueled the fervor over drugs, leading to a zero-tolerance mindset that did no favors for anyone struggling with addiction. “Just Say No” helped justify the incredible mass incarceration that exploded in the 1980s, and led to the expansion of policing through the use of programs like D.A.R.E., under the auspices that increased policing and harsh sentencing would be enough to turn the tide on drug use. Meanwhile, Ronald Reagan oversaw the dismantling of the nation’s mental health-care system, which affected resources for people struggling with substance abuse. Punishment trumped rehabilitation in the national mindset, and educational efforts did little to discuss addiction as a holistic problem, instead framing it as a morality question.
Thankfully, attitudes have begun to change. Research suggests that helping students talk about the realities of drug use with an adult and each other in a group setting, rather than lecturing with overblown rhetoric, can help communicate a more nuanced message about the harms of addiction. “A better message may be that while drugs might not ruin your life and turn you into a drug fiend, they’re certainly not helping you do any of the things you want to accomplish in life, and they have the potential to really get in the way of you being an autonomous, happy person,” Slater says.
At the end of the day, it appears that parents and teachers may greatly overestimate the prevalence of drug use among kids. I’m still glad that we got such a nostalgia-inducing, incredibly esoteric album out of the moral panic, because Smart Kids will inevitably be on rotation for the rest of my adult life. But I also can’t help but laugh thinking of a quote from Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti, who in 1980 berated the Ad Council and the federal Law Enforcement Assistance Administration for pursuing McGruff as a concept: “Why has the LEAA gotten into a campaign that is spending good money on a talking dog?” he deadpanned.
Apparently, it was all for viral success 40 years later.