HoPP Interview—Mat Savelli, “Crafting the Modern Via Psychoactivity Advertisements”

This post is from Points, the joint blog of AIHP and the Alcohol and Drugs History Society. Points publishes original reflections about the history of drugs, medicines, alcohol, pharmacy, and their allied fields.

Mat Savelli Interview Title Card
Left: Senegalese advertisement from December 24, 1960, issue of Dakar Matin. The ad proclaims that Kiravi Valpierre wine is the “Perfect Product of Progress.” Image featured in the article “Crafting Modernity via Psychoactivity Advertisements” in HoPP 63.1.

This is the first installment of the Points series of interviews with authors from the inaugural issue of AIHP’s journal History of Pharmacy and Pharmaceuticals (HoPP) (vol. 63, no. 1). Today we feature Mat Savelli, Assistant Professor and Undergraduate Chair in the Department of Health, Aging, and Society at McMaster University. Read his article here (open access until February 2022!) and consider joining AIHP to subscribe to HoPP.

Article Abstract for “Crafting the Modern Via Psychoactivity Advertisements”

In this article, we examine advertisements for psychoactive products sold in five different geo-political jurisdictions: Canada, Colombia, Yugoslavia, India, and Senegal. We compare products and marketing campaigns aimed at selling psychoactive substances to consumers in these places over the twentieth century.

Ultimately, we argue that the sale of these products was inextricably bound up with ideas of modernity, nation building, and a homogenizing of global attitudes towards the benefits of psychoactivity. We examine the aesthetic and textual qualities of advertisements to first show how these ads produced ideas about belonging that invoked ideas of nationalism.

Advertisers also marketed the access to their products as a reciprocal way of demonstrating belonging—touting access to Coca-Cola, for example, to prove consumers lived in a modern place. Being modern and performing modernity, advertisers suggested, also required the consumption of psychoactive products to cope with the associated strains of being or becoming modern—an idea that applied to individual consumers as well as nations. In this way, the history of psychoactive products and modernity are deeply interconnected, and in this article we critically analyze this relationship to reveal how advertisers characterized modern behavior and national progress as intricately linked to consuming psychoactive products.

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself:

I trained as a historian of psychiatry at the University Oxford before returning to my undergraduate alma mater (McMaster University) to take up a joint position in two interdisciplinary departments (Health, Aging, and Society / Arts & Science). Although I still focus on history, being in these environments really convinced me that my skills as a historian (limited though they may be!) could be applied to some non-historical contexts as well. Thus, my current research spans everything from the history of social psychiatry in Communist Yugoslavia to TikTok as a site for the lay construction of mental disorders. I’m also involved in some large team-based projects on polypharmacy and the practice of deprescribing. 

Read the rest of this interview on Points.

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