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Scene It Before: The Montana Meth Projectís Use of Stereotype, Scare Tactics, and Sensationalism

by Jessica Suzette Santascoy - September 15, 2008

This commentary examines the gendered stereotypes, sensationalism, and scare tactics that the Montana Meth Project is using to convey its message.

The Montana Meth Project is a highly creative, hard-hitting advertising campaign that unsells methamphetamine. Unfortunately, the campaign relies on three main stereotypes to get its message to its audience. The sexualized/commodified female, the violent male, and the crazed druggie are imaged in several videos and print materials. Scare tactics using these stereotypes are at the core of the program’s method.

The effectiveness of the Montana Meth Project is difficult to determine. The Montana Meth Project, the single largest advertiser in Montana, claims that the campaign is responsible for the 45% drop in teen meth use since the project’s inception in 2005.1 However, the timing of the campaign coincides with the introduction of stricter controls of precursor ingredients needed to make meth.2 Furthermore, meth use had been steadily declining, even before the advertising campaign (McQuillan, 2006). Nevertheless, according to the Montana Department of Justice, the campaign has helped reduce meth use and “Montana teens’ perception of risk [of meth use] is 10 percent higher than teen perception nationwide.”3 Increasing the sense of danger of meth use may be the only sure effect of the Montana Meth Project.

There is nothing new about using scare tactics to try to prevent drug use. According to Jeff Linkenbach, Ed.D., a consultant and faculty member in the Department of Health & Human Development at Montana State University and Director of the Montana Social Norms Project, “Decades of research have demonstrated again and again that scare tactics don't work and often backfire…What happens is we erode our credibility with our audience because their experience doesn't bear out [the ads'] reality."4

In a media environment where sexualized images of women bombard us, it’s important to provide a plurality of images of girls. However, the videos and print materials of the Montana Meth Project adhere to status-quo advertising that uses women/girls as sexual commodities. In the “Boyfriend” video a camera pans from a young girl’s feet to her chest. She is wearing a bra and panties, lying on a bed. A gray-haired man finishes dressing, zips up his pants, and leaves. The girl’s voiceover says: “I love my boyfriend. We’ve been together since like 8th grade. He takes care of me.” At the same time, she is crying. Her boyfriend sits by her side to comfort her while taking a hit of meth. The girl is sold, deprived of autonomy, and her body is on camera for everyone to see. Not only do girls get objectified in the mainstream media, but also in the Montana Meth Project.

According to Jackson Katz, co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Prevention Program at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society, “it’s important that the media not legitimize male violence.” The violent male stereotype is used throughout this campaign to unsell methamphetamine. “These violent male icons are overtly threatening consumers to [not] buy a product” (Katz cited in Cortese (2008), p. 84) whereas violent males are usually used to encourage consumers to buy a product. In “Boyfriend,” described above, the two males act as aggressors. One guy is the pimp, the other is the john. They are males to be feared. The message is that a boyfriend can, under the influence of meth, become a pimp. The girl is a victim, in a subordinate position, reifying male dominance, both literally and figuratively. She is under the illusion that her boyfriend is taking care of her, even though he ignores her crying to take a hit. The boy is addicted to meth, and the girl is addicted to meth and her boyfriend. Note that the girl is not selling the boy, which would be one way to subvert the traditional storyline.

In the “Bathtub” video, an old familiar scene is used to frighten in a modern context. The famous shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, where Janet Leigh gets murdered, is partially reenacted. In both, when the young female gets into the shower, we hear only the sound of water running. There is a close-up of the showerhead. In the “Bathtub” scene, the girl screams when she sees blood running down the drain and turns around to see her double, sitting naked in the bathtub corner, bloody and scarred. Her double warns her not to do meth. In Psycho, Leigh is enjoying her shower until the killer opens the curtain and starts stabbing her. Blood is shown running down the drain in both the video and the film, and the loud scream figures prominently. Both females are interrupted during the pleasurable act of showering, in a place that should be private and safe. The image of a woman being murdered in the shower was popularized, perhaps even invented, by Hitchcock in 1960. In 2008, the image is still being used to frighten and act as a warning sign.

Would the campaign be more effective if meth addiction were shown as a progression rather than relying on sensationalism? What if the teens made the videos themselves?5 The Montana Meth project surveyed teens to find out what teens wanted to see. But were the teens shown the videos after production? Do the teens think the behavior of the violent males (in at least three videos the boys are seen hitting someone and stealing)6 and young girls are accurate? Who was and was not included in the teen surveys? Finally, why are almost all the images of seemingly white middle-class kids? Although meth used to be associated with blue-collar EuroAmerican males, currently diverse groups use meth.7 In the only video with a person of color, the guy introduces a girl to her drug dealer, her meth boyfriends, and the mirror image of herself as a horrifyingly ugly meth user. The person of color is seen as the connection to the drug underworld, yet another stereotype to be explored.

Will the Montana Meth Project change its approach? Is the Montana Meth Project aware that it is using images that are hyper-sexualized, and that it favors images depicting females lacking agency? In June 2008, in response to a Christian group’s request, Montana Meth agreed to take down 10 billboards across the state depicting a young woman on the ground with a man behind her who is presumably having sex and/or raping her. The staff and the board at Montana Meth didn’t alienate supporters. In fact, the Christian group asked its members to keep supporting the cause, noting that the billboard was a bit over the top, but that the Montana Meth Project’s goals should be supported. The flexibility and responsiveness of the staff and the board at the Montana Meth Project helped ensure the campaign’s viability, and the media attention engaged debate while providing free advertising. Clearly, the Montana Meth Project does respond to complaints about its ads, although it may not be aware of the stereotypes being promoted.

Sensationalized images often fail to educate. In “Meth Science Not Stigma,” scientists urge the media in an open letter to stop using “sensationalized language that appears intended to shock and appall rather than inform the public…”8 If the Montana Meth Project truly wants to be an educational tool, to “inform potential meth consumers about the product attributes and actual risks associated with methamphetamine”9 as it states on its website, then it must overcome its reliance on stereotype, sensationalism, and scare tactics.


1. See the Montana Meth Project banner on home page 9/10/08

2. See the Montana Department of Justice (2008), p. 5

3. See the Montana Department of Justice (2008), p. 4, 11

4. See McQuillan (2006) for a comprehensive article on the Montana Meth Project. Also see the Most of Us website for more information on Jeff Linkenbach.

5. Alejandro González Iñárritu, the Mexican director of Amores Perros and Babel, directed three videos recently. Darren Aronofsky, the director of Pi and Requiem for a Dream, directed earlier videos. Videos could be made by teens, much like the “Paint the State” component of the Montana Meth Project, which encourages teens to create their own anti-meth campaign materials.

6. See the videos at the Montana Meth Project: “Mother,” “Parents,” “Laundry Mat” and the print material  “Beating an old man for money isn’t normal but on meth it is”

7. See Most of Us p. 3 http://www.mostofus.org/pub/tools/GrassrootsGuide.pdf 9/10/08

8. See Lewis & Millar (2005). The letter is a call for the media to accurately represent prenatal methamphetamine exposure. A complete list of signatures may be obtained at the website.

9. See the Montana Meth Project “about us” page


Cortese, A. J. (2008). Provocateur: Images of women and minorities in advertising. (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Katz, J. (2003). Advertising and the construction of violent white masculinity: From Eminem to Clinique For Men. In G. Dines & J. Humez (Eds.), Gender, race and class in media: A text reader. (2nd  ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Lewis, D. C., & Millar, D.G. (July 25, 2005). Meth science not stigma: Open letter to the media. Join Together Online Journal, Published by Boston University School of Public Health. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://www.jointogether.org/news/yourturn/commentary/2005/meth-science-not-stigma-open.html

McQuillan, J. (August 3, 2006). Why The Montana Meth Project Isn't All It's Cranked Up To Be: What’s Wrong With This Picture? Missoula Independent. Retrieved September 10, 2008 from http://www.november.org/stayinfo/breaking06/CrankedUp.html

Montana Department of Justice. Mike McGrath, Attorney General (April, 2008). Methamphetamine In Montana: A follow-up report on trends and progress,  p. 5. Retrieved September, 10, 2008 from http://www.doj.mt.gov/news/releases2008/20080331report.pdf

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 15, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15374, Date Accessed: 1/17/2022 2:20:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Jessica Santascoy
    New School for Social Research
    E-mail Author
    JESSICA SUZETTE SANTASCOY is a diversity and programming consultant. She holds an MA in Media Studies from The New School for Social Research in New York City and has taught at The New Schoolís Eugene Lang College in the Cultural Studies Department.
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