An image taken from the Navy's PSA on bath salts. (Navy)
Drugs. Monsters. Emergency-room drama. Shape-shifting special effects. Oh, and bowling.
Public affairs and visual information staffers with the Bureau of Navy Medicine set out to warn sailors and Marines about the dangers of bath salts late last year, and the centerpiece of their campaign — a 6-minute, 30-second film mixing Hollywood sci-fi with a medical message — became a viral sensation.
“We had no expectations it would be like this,” said Capt. Dora Lockwood, a BUMED spokeswoman.
The video has been featured on ABC News, on the Time magazine webpage and on the gossip website Gawker. It had more than 781,000 views on YouTube as of Tuesday; the runner-up on the Navy Medicine YouTube channel had a bit more than 32,000 hits. It would rank fourth on the Navy’s YouTube page, behind videos featuring laser weapons and the futuristic X-47B unmanned fighter jet.
The entire campaign — “Bath Salts: It’s not a Fad, It’s a Nightmare” — recently received the fleet’s highest public-affairs honor: “Best in Show” among the Navy’s Thompson-Ravitz Award winners, which were announced Monday.
About a half-dozen people worked on the project in BUMED’s visual information department, with department head Mike Allen serving as executive producer and Charles Allen (no relation) serving as editor, producer and, critically, lead interviewer.
After about two minutes of warped reality seen through the eyes of a sailor under the influence of bath salts, the video switches to Lt. George Loeffler, a psychiatry resident at Naval Medical Center San Diego, who outlines the medical facts behind the dramatization.
“Once we did the on-camera interview [with Loeffler], we had a better idea of what the medical community understands this to be,” Mike Allen said. “Chuck came up with having somebody walk through this, first-person.
“We didn’t want to just show a series of special effects. We had [Loeffler] right behind that to start backing up that yes, that is actually what is happening.”
What is happening: Ingredients in the powder can trigger psychotic episodes as well as physical troubles, anything from difficulty breathing to a heart attack. The combination of drugs differs by product and may not show up on a urinalysis, but they are illegal and fall under the Navy’s zero-tolerance drug policy.
The short version, as Loeffler puts it in the video: Bath salts will “jack up” your body as well as your career.
The BUMED visual information office — which puts together about 60 products a year, including training videos on medical procedures and other drug-warning films that don’t include human-to-mutant transformations — created the special effects in-house, Mike Allen said. Local actors were used. The base bowling alley at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center Bethesda, Md., served as a location shoot. The whole process took about 2½ months.
“Based at Walter Reed, we come in contact directly with sailors and Marines — we have people who said it made an impact,” Mike Allen said.
Outside agencies have asked the Navy for permission to use the film in their own education efforts, Lockwood said. More importantly, she stressed, “We achieved our goal of reaching our intended audience.”