Pop Culture

When do-gooder ads go bad

Public-service announcements have been part of the media landscape since World War II, when Bob Hope encouraged listeners to his radio show to buy bonds.

These days, PSAs compete with an ever-increasing saturation of other messages, and deregulation has left them with less free airtime and made PSA sponsors more like any other advertiser.

There are a series of public-service announcements currently running that say “It takes guts to tell a friend they have a problem with drugs or drinking.” It also takes guts to reveal that PSAs have problems, too. So, in homage to a classic PSA campaign, may I present the Seven Warning Signs of Public-Service Announcements.

Your tax dollars at workIf it seems like 90 percent of all PSAs today are either anti-drug or anti-tobacco messages, there’s a good reason: they have all the money.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America has, at its peak, spent over $350 million a year on advertising buys, most of it funded by the federal government. 

A California initiative dedicated the proceeds from its cigarette tax to “tobacco education”, including a lot of commercials. But the biggest source of money for anti-smoking PSAs is the 2002 tobacco liability settlement that earmarks $500 million a year for anti-tobacco ads.

This is your brain on television
Ever since the anti-drug ad with the egg (your brain) and the hot frying pan (drugs), became a cultural icon (oft-parodied: “Your Brain as a Western Omelet”?), PSA creators have worked to provide messages that are powerful enough to get your attention and simple enough to be understood by somebody on drugs.

The classic “Use a Gun Go to Jail” signs in 7-Elevens and liquor stores are now supplemented with TV ads in California showing a man in a jail cell with this narration: “If you commit a crime and pull a gun, this will be your home for 10 years. Fire the gun, 20 years. Shoot someone, 25 years to life. Get the picture?” 

Meanwhile billboards have popped up reminding potential gun-toters that they’ll end up with “No Friends, No Family, No Freedom”, with pictures of handguns replacing the letter “F”.  But it’s still unclear whether semi-literate criminals may misread them as “No Riends, No Amily, No Reedom.”

Don’t buy our product
Unlike the days of the Fairness Doctrine, marketers of controversial products now directly use ads warning against their “abuse” to improve their PR. 

After years and years of independent messages like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk”, Budweiser created a spot designed to discourage drunk driving in a way only a beermaker could: by showing the Designated Driver getting all the babes.

The most surprising ad in this category represented Philip Morris’ first ad purchase since the cigarette commercial ban, in which the tobacco company declared “there is no safe cigarette” and directed viewers to a Web site promising to help them quit smoking.

A deeply suspicious anti-smoking organization (or maybe just jealous that Philip Morris had stolen their thunder) responded with a spot, aired during the Super Bowl, for a fictitious product which paralleled and parodied the tobacco company’s mea culpa with frozen pops whose not-so-secret ingredient was “Shards-O-Glass.”

That four-letter word: PETA
The animal rights organization PETA is infamous for its controversial agenda and even more controversial methods for promoting it, from naked celebrities in protest of furs to Triumph the Insult Comic Dog claiming Clay Aiken had been spayed.  But their most famous ad was not even aired, a Super Bowl-targeted spot featuring beer-commercial-type babes discovering that eating red meat causes impotence.

Some suspect that PETA really intended to be rejected from the Super Bowl, saving the $2.3 million they would’ve had to spend while getting a million dollars worth of free publicity. After all, the game had already sold ads to two erectile dysfunction drugs and a McDonalds spot that depicted a husband getting excited after noticing the smell of a cheeseburger wrapper on his wife’s clothes.

Besides, the impotence angle had already been definitively covered by past anti-smoking ads. You do remember the flaccid cigarettes, don’t you?

I’m not really a PSA, I just play one on TVJust because the FCC no longer requires such announcements doesn’t mean that broadcasters have no incentive to air them.

And the pursuit of good PR has now been married to television’s perpetual need to promote itself with network-produced themed spots featuring the talking heads of their stars. NBC has “The More You Know”, ABC has “A Better Community” (shrewd use of initials), while CBS/Viacom sponsors the “kNOw HIV/AIDS” program that promotes knowledge as a new wonder drug (but you have to go to their Web site to get any actual information). 

This trend can be traced back to MTV’s “RAD” (Rockers Against Drugs) campaign in the ‘80s, when it seemed like every video came with a matching PSA.The bad guys get all the good lines
The most evil character in Hollywood may be the evil tobacco executive in California’s anti-smoking ads. In his latest performance, he delivers the line: “You’d sell cigarettes to my kids? That’s the kind of out-of-the-box thinking I’m looking for!” 

Smokey Bear in a campaign poster from 1960.

Recent anti-tobacco campaigns have been influenced by research showing that “both children and adults are moved by ads portraying tobacco industry manipulations to hook new smokers and boost profits.” 

But some other ads still have other villains, including a series of youth-oriented spots in Virginia featuring the very un-super anti-hero “Buttman”, who smokes at a gas station, flicks ashes into a prospective employer’s coffee cup and generally “makes kids cry.”

In contrast, an organization called the After School Alliance goes after parents with major guilt — and sarcasm. Their outdoor ads show pictures of smiling grown-ups with captions like “We’re turning our backs on kids and loving every minute of it!”

But the most controversial vilification in PSAs was the commercial linking a guy buying marijuana with bombs and terrorism that debuted on the 2002 Super Bowl and disappeared soon after. Apparently, research showed that these ads were even less effective than the average anti-drug message. 

Some things (almost) never change
Of course, as long as the hundred-plus commercial TV channels have “surplus inventory” (TV-speak for unsold time), they will throw on an occasional spot from the Advertising Council, which only recently made their biggest change to the Smokey Bear campaign: they changed the slogan from “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” to “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires.” 

No matter how cynical, shocking or angry other PSAs become, we are unlikely ever to see Smokey mauling careless campfire-builders.

is the online alias of a freelance writer from Southern California