It all started with an egg, a frying pan, and an actor with six lines. “Is there anyone out there who still isn’t clear what doing drugs does? Okay, last time. This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?” The year was 1987, and the Drug Enforcement Agency was combatting a crack epidemic that had spread to all but four US states. Meanwhile, cocaine usage had spiked from 4.2 million users to 5.8 million two years prior. But this is not a story about drugs. It’s about eggs. Incredible, edible, titillating, terrifying eggs.
“An egg is sort of a universal,” says Paul Keyes, the creative director of the original “Fried Egg” campaign for the Partnership for a Drug Free America. “And in its form it’s perfect. Here was this egg that, when broken, could never take that form again.”
The most famous anti-drug commercial of all time was fried to perfection in a kitchen in Los Angeles. The recipe: one egg and zero drugs. The point of the spot was to show the irreversible effect of illegal substances in a way it hadn’t been shown before. The tactic was to turn the familiar, comforting notion of breakfast into something more ominous. The execution had to be precise.
The actor, John Roselius, was trained to crack an egg on a frying pan so it split without destroying the yolk, landing in the bullseye of the pan. “We did use a fair number of eggs,” says Larre Johnson, the copywriter on the campaign. “A couple dozen. It needed to break so that the egg didn’t look like a paintball. It needed to register as an egg.”
The sizzle was crucial too, and pumped up in post-production, cementing the twisted association between splattered organs and eggs. The effect was eerie and indelible. It crackled with breakfast perversion. It was so effective, the American Egg Board reportedly took issue with the ad, worried that viewers would associate eggs with the dangers of drugs. Inevitably, the parodies ensued. Saturday Night Live kicked it off “with a side of bacon.” Weird Al and Freddy Krueger followed suit.
Ten years later, in 1997, a new generation of teenagers would be re-exposed to the sobering side of an egg.
We are back in a kitchen, this time with Rachel Leigh Cook. She holds an egg, your brain, and then smashes it with a frying pan, comparing the gelatinous remnants to your brain on heroin. The tone has changed since 1987, along with the drug of choice. Gone is the wise-up message from the sober authority figure who knows better. He’s been replaced by a presumed heroin abuser who knows more. But what’s endured over a decade of cultural and economic shifts is the egg itself.
Both spots bring to mind the caution with which we handle fragile things, and the moment in which caution is abandoned in a sizzling, tantalizing point of no return. “Sex sells,” that old advertising saying holds true. Eggs are sexy. Or rather, they became sexy back in 1987, when a drug commercial jumpstarted our national obsession with the seedy side of eggs. That was the first moment we equated eggs with a danger we didn’t totally understand. And danger + food = viral. Put simply, the “Fried Egg” campaign was egg-porn in its fetal state.
If the ads have faced their share of criticism—with Frank Rich and others questioning their effectiveness in combatting drug use, along with their scientific accuracy—there’s no denying the impact of the original spot, which wound the wires of fear and hunger in our brains and tapped into our collective egg-ogling fantasies.
Nearly thirty years after the initial spot, the Los Angeles Times hails eggs as “the star of the food porn world” and Buzzfeed rattles off “21 Videos of Eggs That Are Actually Porn.” The hashtag #eggporn competes with the handle @eggporn on Instagram. Both show a patchwork of goopy, yolky close-ups, some broken, some precariously in tact, oozing on beds of spinach, meat and bread. “No one’s judging you,” writes @eggporn’s mysterious arbiter. In this brave new world, we embrace the egg and all the complicated ways it makes us feel, but we haven’t forgotten the first funny feelings we had.
In late August of this year, a third riff on the original “Fried Egg” commercial was released. This time the harbinger of the message is off-camera, as if the egg itself, frying in its greasy pan, is speaking to young viewers, and those young viewers are responding, asking questions. (“Weed’s legal, isn’t it?” “Prescription drugs aren’t as bad as street drugs, right?”).
It’s a kinder, gentler message—not about shutting down desires, but acknowledging those desires exist, and talking about them. The egg may not be the scare tactic it once was, but it still makes up stop whatever we’re doing to watch it bleed onto a pan.
There is something addictive about an egg changing its form. The crack, the sizzle, the film that holds a delicate yolk in place, the urge to break it. It all feels temptingly illicit. Like drugs. Like your brain on drugs. Any questions?