A plastic bag tumbles to the ground, expelling puffs of white powder as it lands. A voice intones: "This bag costs $12,000 on the street."
The scene changes to a black body bag as it is zipped up and slid into a morgue locker by a bespectacled man in a lab coat. "This bag costs $4.25," purrs the voice. "Not a very good return on your investment, is it?"
In 15 seconds, the public service announcement, conceived by teen-agers David Horvath and Richard Lee, punches harder than "Just say no." As the 1989 winner in a nationwide student competition sponsored by the Scott Newman Center, the commercial, titled simply "Cocaine," will be distributed to big-city television stations next month for airing.
"It's very powerful and yet very simple," said Karen Reist, who, as the Newman center's PSA Project director, runs the student contest. The anti-drug center in Hollywood was formed after actor Paul Newman's son died in 1978 at 28 of a drug and alcohol overdose.
Horvath and Lee's message was chosen from about 1,100 entries. The youths designed the commercial last year when both were students at University High School in West Los Angeles. Horvath, 18, now attends Santa Monica College, and Lee, 17, has since moved and is a senior at Temple City High School in the San Gabriel Valley.
Art teacher Fran Nichols, knowing Horvath was interested in an advertising career, suggested the Scott Newman contest, which called for story boards for public service announcements (known as PSAs in the ad business) with an anti-drug point. The rules required partners, so Horvath asked Lee, a friend and fellow art student, to collaborate.
For nearly two months, meeting in their daily art class, the boys swapped ideas. It was a process notable for its harmony. "(We) never had a disagreement. . . ." Lee said. "Because," Horvath chimed in, "whenever (an idea) wasn't liked by one, it wasn't liked by both."
Some of their approaches they rejected as too gory for public consumption or too weak--such as images of a young addict dying or gang members dying. "It's more effective if you can show what can happen, but not showing it happening," Horvath said.
The students chose cocaine because it's lethal and widely used, Lee said.
Horvath came up with the two-bag concept, while thinking of "things that are named the same thing, but (are) different."
Their prize came one day last December: A 6:30 a.m. limousine ride from their homes on the Westside to a studio in Valencia, where they spent the day posing for photos with the producer and director and watching their idea getting transferred to videotape by professionals.
A Los Angeles police officer at the filming made sure the bag of baking powder looked like credible cocaine and priced the bag accordingly, Horvath said. The bag was dropped about 100 times in the quest for the perfect drop.
The message, Lee said, has no targeted age or demographic group. "We basically aimed at everyone. Any person that watches this, we want to affect them."
The Horvath and Lee PSA partnership started as a friendship fueled by common enthusiasm for art and specifically for Frank Miller, a comic-book artist known for his "The Dark Knight Returns." Miller stands out from the other "monotonous" comic book art that all "seems like the same guy's doing it," Horvath said.
The duo is creating a comic book set in the future in which the 32nd Amendment to the U.S. Constitution outlaws gambling. The main character, Detective Harrison Keplan, becomes obsessed with avenging the death of his partner, murdered when he came too close to uncovering the casino operations of an "underground Mafia dude," said Lee, who wrote most of the plot. There's plenty of action and gun battles and blood along the way.
If the book is published, Lee says, they'll develop stories with flashbacks to Keplan's better days, when his partner was alive.
Lee adds that after having "so much fun being creative with David" for the PSA contest, he, too, wants to go into advertising. He is taking a film class at school and an advertising class at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Horvath plans to take classes at the Art Center this fall.
Despite the theme of their first foray into advertising, the two don't consider themselves anti-drug zealots. They said they don't personally know anyone who has died of drug use.
But Horvath added that he has a former close friend who "smokes pot every single day. . . . Whenever I would go up to talk to him, all he talks about is what great stuff he's got. . . . That just doesn't appeal to me."