Mundane Addiction: the Cinematic Depiction of Cocaine Consumption

ABSTRACT - Using three motion pictures depicting cocaine addiction during the 1980's (i.e., Bright Lights, Big City; Less Than Zero; Clean and Sober) five themes are identified that appear to be common, or mundane, aspects of the narratives. These themes are (1) self-deception, (2) deception of others, (3) drug use in response to anxiety, stress, and failure, (4) multi-drug use and desperation to use, and (5) continuity of use and physical deterioration.Mundane Addiction:


Elizabeth C. Hirschman (1992) ,"Mundane Addiction: the Cinematic Depiction of Cocaine Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 424-428.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 424-428


Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


Using three motion pictures depicting cocaine addiction during the 1980's (i.e., Bright Lights, Big City; Less Than Zero; Clean and Sober) five themes are identified that appear to be common, or mundane, aspects of the narratives. These themes are (1) self-deception, (2) deception of others, (3) drug use in response to anxiety, stress, and failure, (4) multi-drug use and desperation to use, and (5) continuity of use and physical deterioration.Mundane Addiction:


Over the past decade consumer researchers have become increasingly aware of compulsive and impulsive purchasing (Rook and Hoch 1985; Rook 1987; Faber, O'Guinn and Krych 1987; O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). Closely related to these activities are drug addiction and alcoholism (Peele 1985), which have recently also come to the interest of consumer researchers (Hirschman 1991; Hirschman 1992 a,b). The majority of these studies are based upon phenomenological accounts of addicted and compulsive consumers and have provided several insights into the lived-world of compulsive-addictive consumption.

However, there is another vantage point from which it may be quite constructive to examine addictive behavior -- that is fictional depictions presented in motion pictures. Denzin (1991), for example has developed a compelling analysis of alcoholism as a cinematic genre in which he describes how cultural conceptions of this form of addictive behavior have been shaped by its portrayal in films over an eighty year period. "In the alcoholism film Hollywood would focus on the problem drinker and turn his or her problems with alcohol into occasions for moralistic, didactic discussions of alcoholism and its destructive effects on the person and society. Films such as those analyzed (here) serve as distorted mirrors or fractured reflections of the American concern for its 'alcoholism' problem (Denzin 1991, p. xiii)." Denzin's findings are based on an interpretive analysis of thirty-seven motion pictures spanning an eighty year time period.

The present paper is not nearly as comprehensive and detailed as Denzin's work. Instead, I will focus upon three films from the late 1980's which depict the effects of cocaine addiction; these films are 'Bright Lights, Big City' (1988), 'Less Than Zero' (1987) and 'Clean and Sober' (1988). As in Denzin's sample, these films were chosen because they were major motion pictures (i.e., were released by major studios), experienced wide-spread distribution and achieved at least moderate commercial success. They thus serve as impactful semiotic vehicles for encoding and communicating our cultural values regarding drug addiction.

As will be shown, these films are also instructive to consider as a set because they depict three different outcomes for their protagonists. In 'Bright Lights, Big City', the protagonist, Jamie Conway, overcomes his cocaine addiction through the exercise of personal choice and will power. In 'Less Than Zero', the protagonist, Julian Wells, takes an opposite path. After struggling to overcome and control his addiction to cocaine, he dies. In the third film, 'Clean and Sober', the protagonist, Daryl Poynter, enters a drug rehabilitation program denying he is a cocaine addict. Through the program, he ultimately comes to acknowledge his addiction and -- with group support -- is able to control it.

These three films, then, tell dialectically different stories about addiction and suggest that greatly disparate outcomes are possible for the cocaine addict. However, as I shall show, they also put forward remarkably similar portrayals of what it is like to be an addict. Brief synopses of each film are now presented: (Extensive synopses are available from the author. All three films are available on videocassette.)

Bright Lights, Big City

Jamie Conway (Michael J. Fox) is a clean-cut, aspiring, young writer working for an elite magazine in New York City. Originally from the Midwest, Jamie has taken up with a fast crowd. He frequently stays out all night dancing at discotheques; he drinks liquor heavily and uses cocaine. While the actual origins of Jamie's addiction are unclear, the narrative suggests that they are linked to the death of his mother from cancer, which occurred a year earlier, and his attractive wife, Amanda's (Phoebe Cates), desertion of their marriage for a modeling career.

The narrative covers a three or four day time period in Jamie's life, during which he is fired from his job due to sloppy performance, is pursued by his brother, Michael, to attend their late mother's memorial service, re-encounters Amanda at a fashion show where he is thrown out for drunkenness, and meets the virtuous, sensitive Vickie, who becomes his new love. The narrative suggests that after "hitting bottom" in his professional and personal life due to his addictions Jamie resolves his emotional conflicts over his mother and wife, abandons drugs (symbolized in the film by his trading his dark sunglasses for a fresh bread roll), and vows to begin life anew. The film ends with Jamie sitting on a pier overlooking the ocean early on a Sunday morning. He tells himself, "You're gonna have to go slowly. Have to learn everything all over again".

Less Than Zero

The narrative opens by showing three affluent friends at their high school graduation in Los Angeles. Clay (Andrew McCarthy) goes east to college, while his best friend, Julian (Robert Downey, Jr.), and Clay's girlfriend, Blair (Jamie Gertz), remain behind in California. At Thanksgiving, Clay returns home to discover that Julian and Blair have become lovers. He is angry and hurt. Prior to Christmas break, Blair calls Clay and asks him to come home to help her with Julian, who has developed an addiction to cocaine. Upon Clay's return to Los Angeles, the narrative provides a glimpse of the lifestyle in which the three were raised: incredible wealth and social privilege, coupled with broken homes and selfish, disinterested parents. (For example, Clay has no one to meet him at the airport, so he takes a cab home; Blair's father does not even come out of his bedroom to accept her Christmas present.)

Blair confides to Clay that Julian's attempt to become a record producer failed. Julian, despondent, then turned increasingly to cocaine and now owes his dealer $50,000. Julian spends his nights dancing high at discos and his days 'coming down' from drugs at the beach, public parks, or Blair's apartment. Julian's father has forbidden him to return home because of his repeated, failed attempts at rehabilitation and his continued theft of money from the family for drugs.

Toward the end of the narrative several significant events occur: Julian is forced by his drug dealer to become a male prostitute and finally admits to Clay that he is an addict and owes a great deal of money. While Clay is attempting to help him, Julian steals jewelry from Clay's house. Clay and Blair later find Julian at Blair's house and help him through withdrawal. Julian promises them to stay off of drugs. Julian goes to his father and asks to be taken back. His father agrees. Julian then goes to see his drug dealer in Palm Springs to square away his debts. However, the dealer lures Julian back into homosexual prostitution and addiction. Blair and Clay arrive at the dealer's house and rescue Julian. While they are driving back to Los Angeles, Julian dies. After Julian's funeral, Blair -- who has given up her own cocaine habit -- agrees to return to college with Clay.

Clean and Sober

An affluent, young, commercial real estate broker, Daryl Poynter (Michael Keaton), awakens after a night of drinking and snorting cocaine to find his date has suffered a heart attack (due to cocaine use) in his bed. Daryl disposes of the drugs and calls the police. After they accuse him of cocaine use, he first tries to fly to Canada, but cannot because his credit card has been revoked. He then goes to a colleague's house where he drinks beer and asks to hide out. The colleague refuses. In desperation to elude the police, Daryl checks himself into a rehabilitation clinic, where his presence will be kept confidential.

Despite going through withdrawal, Daryl refuses to admit he is an addict and continues to try to obtain cocaine from outside sources. While at the clinic, Daryl falls in love with another recovering addict, a young, blue-collar woman named Charlie. Upon their release from the program, Daryl attempts to get Charlie to leave her addicted, petty thief husband, Lenny, and come live with him.

While in the clinic, Daryl reluctantly joins AA/NA and gets a sponsor named Richard. Richard helps Daryl reconstruct his life away from the use drugs and alcohol.

Daryl is fired from his job for having embezzled money to buy drugs when he was an addict. Daryl discovers Charlie is still using cocaine and has her flush it down the toilet. Charlie finds she cannot leave Lenny because he "needs" her more than Daryl does. Daryl finally lands a job and calls Charlie to tell her. She agrees to come see him. Driving over, Charlie snorts cocaine, has a car wreck and is killed. Richard comforts Daryl, telling him he could not have prevented Charlie's death.

The narrative closes with Daryl speaking at an AA/NA meeting. He tells the members that he entered the program merely to escape the police, but now has come to realize that he is an addict and must continue to recover.


These three films differ in structure, outcome, tone and texture and yet there are some striking commonalities across all three narratives that reveal our cultural conceptions of cocaine addiction. These commonalities constitute the everyday -- or mundane -- aspects of addiction, and it is to a consideration of them that we now turn.

Lifestyle. Cocaine consumption during the time period depicted in these films (e.g., late 1970's-early 1980's) was associated with a glamorous, sensual lifestyle (Hirschman 1992a); cocaine was culturally viewed as something the affluent did at "swinging" parties, at discotheques, and prior to sex (Hirschman 1992a). The narratives depict cocaine use in ways highly consistent with this cultural ideology. All three protagonists are well-educated, affluent professionals. All are young and single, and in all three films the use of cocaine is linked to sociability and sexuality.

In addition to these lifestyle commonalities, however, the three narratives tell us much more about the phenomenology of drug addiction, per se, including the texture of the daily life of an addict.

Self-Deception. One of the most commonly shared traits among addicts is self-deception (see Johnson 1980). Addicts typically construct elaborate systems of denial, which act to blind them the negative effects that their drug/alcohol consumption has on their personal and professional lives. For example, Jamie Conway, the central character in Bright Lights, Big City, is engulfed in denial. Through his cocaine and alcohol use he has avoided dealing with the two central losses in his life -- the death of his mother and the divorce from his wife. Instead of confronting and resolving his emotions, he runs away from them through frenetic activity at all-night discotheques and mind-numbing doses of stimulants and depressants.

Jamie's denial extends to his professional life as well. His editorial work has become sloppy and haphazard; he has all but abandoned attempts to complete a novel. Yet Jamie does not seem to notice these deficiencies. His life has become reduced to an existence of locating drugs and getting through the days and nights of his life with as little introspection as possible.

The storyline of Less Than Zero revolves around life-after-high school for three friends. Clay has gone to college and no longer consumes drugs; while Julian and Blair have remained in Los Angeles, where both have become dependent on cocaine. Julian's addiction is by far the more serious. He has amassed a $50,000 debt to his dealer, Rip, which signals not only the depth of his denial, but also of his addiction. According to the film, Julian "conned his way through" rehabilitation, meaning that he refused to take his addiction, or treatment for it, seriously. Despite a series of career failures and alienation from his family, Julian denies that he has a drug "problem". He continues to make elaborate plans to resurrect his life by opening up a night club. When Clay finds him sleeping on park benches and on beaches, Julian contends that it is because he has "trouble at home", rather than a cocaine dependency. Ultimately, Julian's self-deception leads to his death. He returns to see Rip, ostensibly to tell him that he is getting straight, but instead becomes (easily) lured back into cocaine use. His last consumption binge proves to be fatal.

Daryl Poynter in Clean and Sober has embezzled $90,000 from his firm to buy cocaine, found a date near death from a drug overdose in his bed, drinks beer for breakfast, and still does not recognize that he is an addict. Craig, his rehabilitation clinic counselor, tells Daryl, "You've been straight for twelve whole days. That's how we do it... a minute at a time, a day at a time. But you gotta know you got a problem". Daryl does not.

Daryl's denial of his drug addiction continues despite his undergoing withdrawal, the admonitions of his counselors, and the questioning of his AA sponsor: "Daryl, are you an addict?" "Fuck you!" replies Daryl. Only slowly, gradually does Daryl come to recognize -- and accept -- his status as an addict. Thirty days out of rehab, after the deaths of his date and Charlie, and the loss of his job, Daryl stands in front of an NA/AA group and says: "I've been to a funeral, 9,000 job interviews and I'm $52,000 in debt. And now I've got this... startling belief that I'm an addict".

Denial dies a slow and painful death in the addict's consciousness. But with the death of denial comes the birth of recovery. Daryl and Jamie both broke through their own patterns of denial, recognized themselves as addicts and, the narratives imply, lived. Julian never fully overcame his denial and died. Thus, these three films inform us that one must be able to discern the destructiveness of addiction to one's life before being capable of fully abandoning one's dependence upon it.

Deception of Others. Addicts typically engage in elaborate schemes to deceive others concerning their drug use (see Johnson 1980). Most commonly those whom the addict feels s/he must deceive are friends, family and coworkers. In Bright Lights, Big City, Jamie Conway engages in these mundane acts of deception most markedly with his coworkers and brother. Although he is chronically tardy for work and often he has the red eyes, swollen nose and headaches associated with cocaine use, Jamie denies to his colleagues that he is using drugs. Ultimately he is fired for the poor quality of his work, but still refuses to associate it with his drug and alcohol consumption. Jamie also tries to avoid contacting his brother, fearing his addiction will be discovered.

Julian, in Less Than Zero, also acts in a manipulative and deceptive fashion on several occasions. In one instance, he asks his uncle for $15,000 to open a nightclub, intending instead to use the money to repay his drug debts. In another instance, he breaks into his family's home and attempts to steal some audio equipment. Later, in desperation, he pleads with his friend, Clay, to help him get $50,000. While Clay is attempting to obtain the money for him, Julian enters Clay's house and steals his mother's jewelry. As Julian's father tells him in one scene: "Trust was the first thing you ruined".

Daryl Poynter of Clean and Sober, like Jamie and Julian, has attempted to deceive many people in order to disguise his addiction. At the outset of the narrative he lies to a friend and coworker, Martin, about the escrow money he has stolen. He next lies to the police, telling them he does not use drugs. He lies to the personnel at the rehabilitation clinic, telling them he is not hiding from the police. Daryl attempts to manipulate Martin into bringing him cocaine in the rehabilitation clinic. When that fails, he calls his parents, tells them he is in a "financial bind" and asks them to mortgage their house and send him the money. When explaining the missing escrow account to his superiors at work, Daryl initially tries to blame a secretary for depositing the money in his checking account by error. Finally, he admits to them his drug dependency and recent treatment -- a signal that he is finally beginning to 'get honest' with himself and others.

As these three films suggest, active drug addicts are not truthful people. They will lie, cheat, steal and deceive to maintain their addictions. Family, friends and colleagues -- rather than being off-limits for this treatment -- are often the most likely to experience it.

Drug Use in Response to Anxiety, Stress, Failure. Addiction is often stimulated by the use of drugs / alcohol as a form of self-medication in response to anxiety, stress and failure (Brister and Brister 1987). The narrative of Bright Lights, Big City strongly suggests that Jamie's current dependence upon cocaine and liquor is his attempt to escape very painful emotions tied to his mother's death and the breakup of his marriage. Further, the film suggests that when facing a stressful encounter, Jamie also 'fortifies' himself with drugs and alcohol. For example, before encountering his ex-wife at a fashion show, Jamie gulps down two double vodkas. Upon encountering her again at a party, Jamie snorts cocaine. And when Jamie's brother tells him he must return home to attend his mother's memorial service, he responds by snorting cocaine and leaving for a party.

In Less Than Zero, Blair tells Clay that Julian's cocaine addiction is directly attributable to his failure as a record producer: "He never ever failed before. He started getting high. He had a fight with his father. Mr. Wells threw him out". Julian's life is now one of constant stress and anxiety. He is estranged from his family, unable to function professionally, and deeply in debt. To cope, Julian consumes as much cocaine as he is able to obtain, getting quite sick when his supply is depleted. The 'medicine' that once enabled him to escape his problems, now has become the central source of his misery.

Unlike Bright Lights, Big City and Less Than Zero, the narrative of Clean and Sober provides us with few clues as to the origins of Daryl's drug and alcohol dependency. Once his addictions are established, however, he frequently attempts to turn to them in times of stress and anxiety. For example, the morning the stricken date is found in his bed, Daryl flushes the cocaine down the toilet to evade the police. However, as soon as he arrives at a friend's house, he gulps down a beer. Unable to flee the country, Daryl drinks liquor and smokes cigarettes. Thus we learn that these are his typical ways of responding to stressful events.

Like most addicts, Jamie, Julian and Daryl began their drug and alcohol use as a way of medicating themselves past painful emotions. However, as Brister and Brister (1987) observe, they are now trapped in a vicious circle in which the pain of withdrawal from drug use stimulates sufficient impetus for them to reinitiate their consumption.

Multi-drug Use / Desperation to Use. Another mundane aspect of addiction is that it often extends to include several substances or activities (Hirschman 1992b). In Bright Lights, Big City, Jamie Conway is presented as cross-addicted to cocaine and alcohol. This is a common "upper" (i.e., stimulant) / "downer" (i.e., depressant) pattern. In order to give himself energy for work or partying, Jamie snorts cocaine. In order to ease his "crash" from cocaine or to relax when he experiences anxiety, Jamie drinks vodka. As is typical of addicts, when these drugs of-choice are unavailable, Jamie will readily consume others. For example, when having dinner with his coworker, Meghan, Jamie gulps down wine and steals some Valium he finds in her bathroom. When his drug / alcohol supply is depleted, Jamie becomes desperate to obtain more. At one point he leaves work in midday to buy cocaine in a public park.

Like Jamie, Julian in Less Than Zero, exhibits multiple chemical dependencies. His drug-of-choice is free-base cocaine, but the narrative depicts him also smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor. In several scenes, Julian's drug dependence is depicted in desperate terms. He begs cocaine from Rip, even though he is deeply in debt and ultimately is forced into homosexual prostitution. In the final scenes of the film, Julian -- although vowing to have given up his drug habit -- is easily brought back into both his addiction and acts of prostitution simply by being offered a free-base pipe.

As with Jamie and Julian, Daryl exhibits multi-drug addiction. He is dependent upon cocaine, alcohol and cigarettes. By the end of the film, it is suggested that he has abandoned use of cocaine and alcohol, but his status regarding cigarettes is left ambiguous. (AA/NA permit both cigarette smoking and caffeine consumption.) Daryl's desperation to use these substances is suggested vividly by two activities in the film. First, in the rehabilitation program and cut off from his drug supply, Daryl places repeated calls to his dealer attempting to obtain cocaine. In another segment of the film, he ransacks his office, searching desperately for drugs. When he can find none, he calls his parents, manipulating them for money to buy cocaine.

The addicts portrayed in these three films depict the extremes to which people will go in order to obtain more of the substances upon which they have become dependent. As these narratives illustrate, addicts lead lives of frantic -- not quiet -- desperation.

Continuity of Use and Physical Deterioration. Perhaps the most mundane aspect of addiction is the regularity with which it governs the addict's everyday life. All other personal and professional activities become subordinated to the consumption of the drug. At the extreme, the addicted consumer's life becomes consumed by the addiction. In Bright Lights, Big City, Jamie is depicted as under the influence of cocaine and / or alcohol in virtually every scene. He snorts cocaine in the morning to cope with his job, drinks at lunch and at dinner to cope with stress, drinks and snorts to have a good time on a date and so on. His personal functioning is depicted as a function of drug and liquor consumption. The unbroken continuity of Jamie's chemical dependencies take a dramatic toll on his physical appearance. He struggles to maintain his Preppie appearance, but his clothes become increasingly disheveled, his hair unkempt, his complexion unhealthy, his nose bloody.

Julian, in Less Than Zero, has reached an ever more disintegrated physical state due to his continuous cocaine use. Julian is shown becoming increasingly disheveled and emotionally distraught; his clothing deteriorates over the course of the film from L.A. chic to dirty and unkempt. His behavior declines from nightclubbing to acts of sexual perversion. Even more than Jamie, Julian's face displays the physical ravages of heavy addiction: his eyes are swollen and bloodshot; there are open sores around his mouth from frequent free-basing, his hair is dirty and his face remains unshaven for days.

As with Jamie and Julian, Daryl is depicted as continuously concerned with maintaining his addiction. He snorts cocaine and drinks alcohol at the outset of the day. When his cocaine supply is disrupted, he continues to drink and smoke cigarettes. Drug use is shown to be the constant in Daryl's life. He also exhibits a physical deterioration due to his chemical dependencies. The morning he checks into the rehabilitation clinic he is disheveled and unshaven. His Yuppie-style clothes are rumpled and dirty; his speech is too rapid and nervous. As yet unrecognized by Daryl, his life has become unmanageable.


As with impulsive and compulsive purchasing, drug addiction and alcoholism can disrupt and even destroy consumers' lives. The present paper has examined addiction through a novel venue -- motion pictures. Motion pictures which focus upon addiction can serve as instructive, semiotically-rich texts for communicating cultural knowledge about addiction.

By examining the behaviors of addicted consumers as depicted in cinematic narratives, we can learn about commonalities culturally perceived to characterize drug/alcohol addiction. The three films used in the present study, i.e., Bright Lights, Big City, Less Than Zero, and Clean and Sober are from the same time period (1987-1988) and document cultural beliefs surrounding cocaine consumption in the early-to-mid 1980's. Beyond distinctive lifestyle patterns, e.g., young, affluent, professional users; social/leisure usage occasions, these films suggest five common, or mundane, themes which inform our societal conception of cocaine addiction. These include: (1) self-deception, (2) the deception of others, (3) the use of drugs in response to anxiety, stress, and failure, (4) multi-drug dependency and desperation to use and (5) the continuity of drug use and accompanying physical deterioration.

The present study has made initial efforts to link these themes to the social science and clinical literatures on drug/alcohol addiction. However, a more concerted and systematic inquiry would be useful to discern the degree of overlap between our popular culture conceptions of addiction (as depicted in motion pictures) and social science theories of addiction. Both are culturally-constituted texts, yet they are constructed by different social groups and serve the needs/objectives of different constituencies. Understanding how they differ and overlap in the meanings they apply to addiction would be not only a useful exercise in social deconstruction, but would perhaps also provide insights into how popular and scientific texts influence each other in giving meaning to phenomena such as addiction.

A further constructive extension of the present study would be to inquire how much of a phenomenological affinity active and recovering addicts experience with the characters depicted as addicts in motion pictures. Do 'genuine' addicts view these cinematic portrayals of addiction as echoing their own feelings and behaviors or do they see them as false images?

The answers to these and other questions engendered by an examination of the various vantage points from which the meaning of addiction is constructed would likely prove useful to addicts and social scientists, alike.


Brister, David and Phyllis Brister (1987), The Vicious Circle Phenomenon, Birmingham, Al: Diadem.

Denzin, Norman K. (1991), Hollywood Shot By Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema, New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Faber, Ronald J., Thomas C. O'Guinn and Raymond Krych (1987), "Compulsive Consumption", in M. Wallendorf and P. Anderson (eds.), Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 14, Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 132-135.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1992a), "Cocaine as Innovation: A Social Symbolic Account", Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, John Sherry and Brian Sternthal (eds.), Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, forthcoming.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1992b), "Recovering From Drug Addiction: A Phenomenological Account", Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, John Sherry and Brian Sternthal (eds.), Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, forthcoming.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1991), "Secular Mortality and the Dark Side of Consumer Behavior: How Semiotics Saved My Life", Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 17, Rebecca Holman and Michael R. Solomon (eds.), Provo, Utah: Association for Consumers Research, 1-4.

Hoch, Stephen J. and George F. Lowenstein (1991), "Time Inconsistent Preferences and Consumer Self-Control", Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 17, March, 492-507.

Johnson, Vernon E. (1980), I'll Quit Tomorrow, San Francisco: Harper & Row.

Peele, Stanton (1985), The Meaning of Addiction: Compulsive Experience and Its Interpretation, Lexington, MA: D.C. Health & Co.

Rook, Dennis W. (1987), "The Buying Impulse", Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (September), 189-199.

Rook, Dennis W. and Stephen J. Hoch (1985), "Consuming Impulses" in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 12, E.C. Hirschman and M.B. Holbrook (eds.), Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 23-27.



Elizabeth C. Hirschman, Rutgers University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19 | 1992

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