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

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

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

Editor’s Note: 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.

What got you interested in the history of pharmacy, drugs, or pharmaceuticals?

I first met Erika Dyck, my co-author, about twenty years ago when she was finishing up her PhD, and I was working as a research assistant for her supervisor. Her dissertation examined the history of psychedelics in psychiatry. Talking to her about her work was revelatory—as it was the first time I really began to think about the meanings of drugs as being socially constructed, rather than simply scientifically defined.

Years later, after finishing up my own doctorate, I briefly took up a position as a researcher within the world of tobacco control. Specifically, I worked on a project that explored the ways that cigarette packaging acts as an advertisement for the cigarettes themselves. Eventually I decided to merge my interests in psychopharmaceuticals and advertising, leading me to my present research.

Savelli Pepsi Ad

Indian Pepsi Cola advertisement from the January 26, 1996, issue of the Times of India (Mumbai). Image featured in the article “Crafting Modernity via Psychoactivity Advertisements” in HoPP 63.1

Explain your article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

I bartended for years, so hopefully I do okay with this one:

Okay, so there are a host of products with psychoactive properties, which basically means that they impact your feelings, thoughts, and behavior. The gin you’re serving me right now—that’s psychoactive, as is coffee, tea, tobacco, and a whole host of drugs we normally think of as medications, ranging from pain killers to the stuff your psychiatrist prescribes you.

In our article, we essentially argue that advertisements for these products have really sought to associate them with feelings of being modern. The companies behind these products, and the ad agencies that they employed, seem to have really wanted consumers to see these products as tools that would allow us to live in a modern way. In other words, advertisements taught people across the world that that you shouldn’t just drink wine because its delicious, or smoke cigarettes because it’s fun; rather, you should consume them so that you’re not backwards, old-fashioned, and out of touch with modern times.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

Alongside Erika Dyck, my co-author, I’m overseeing a project on the advertising of psychoactive substances from the late nineteenth century until the present day. As people like Nikolas Rose and David Courtwright have argued, the last century witnessed a profound transformation in how we relate to psychoactive substances. Although humans have always used these types of substances, we use them with greater frequency and in a more instrumental way than in the past. Many of us engage in the daily practice of psychoactive self-management, using these substances to modify and control our feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. Erika and I are really interested in the role of advertising in shaping these practices.

Savelli Costena Ad

Colombian advertisement for Costeña beer from the September 1955 issue of Revista Semana. The ad reads: “Do not get overheated … and drink Costeña.” Image featured in the article “Crafting Modernity via Psychoactivity Advertisements” in HoPP 63.1

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field?

It’s a really wonderful time to be a historian working on drugs! Some of the more recent shifts in society’s understanding of these products—here I’m thinking of the legalization of cannabis and the renewed medical exploration of psychedelics—are already sparking increased interest in the history of drugs. Beyond that, I think we’re coming to a place where it is widely acknowledged that the War on Drugs has been an abysmal failure, producing far more harm than it ever could have prevented. These shifts in thinking will allow for robust and intellectually honest assessments of drug history, and I’m excited to see what new generations of historians dig up.

Which scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

Is it cheating to say Marx? Beyond the fact that his writing remains relevant more than 150 years later, as someone whose research has focused on Eastern Europe, I’d love to hear his take on the Communist experiments of the twentieth century. I imagine it would be a profoundly strange experience to contemplate some of terrible misdeeds carried out in one’s name.


Be sure to read the full article, “Crafting Modernity via Psychoactivity Advertisements,” which will be open access until February 2022!


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