Monday, April 26, 2010

Memorable 80s and 90s PSA Campaigns

I wish I could take credit for this picture, but I just found it on Amazon. Funny, though, right?

No matter how hip and focus group-tested you aim to make your public service announcement campaign, it faces pretty dire odds of coming off as incredibly, mockably cheesy. It's just the nature of the medium. There's no cool way to say something totally buzzkillish and square, so you may as well shoot for saying it memorably.

This was the strategy these campaigns took, capitalizing deftly on their 30-second moment of influence over impressionable young people. Through the power of incessant repetition and catchy songs or phrasing, these publicly serving commercials took up residence in our malleable juvenile minds. Whether we were young enough to buy into their message or old enough to snark on their relentless harping, they undoubtedly held enough intrigue to be worth remembering fifteen-odd years down the road.

The Incredible Crash Test Dummies

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had a message for us: don't be a dummy. The clearest way to transmit that message? Actual crash test dummies. Sure, their crash-induced injuries were played for laughs, but we soon learned that driving without a seat belt was no joke. Thanks, Vince and Larry. We owe you one.

Mr Yuk

What easier way to warn non-literate small children of the danger of hazardous noxious household chemicals than with a giant, disgusted neon green grimacing face? I certainly can't think of any. Wikipedia helpfully points out that children may associate the traditional poison emblem of a skull and crossbones with pirates rather than poison, so we definitely need an alternative symbol. Right. I know when I'm trying to break into the yummy candy vials in the medicine cabinet, I'm pretty sure that one with the Jolly Roger on it is full of pirates. It all adds up so perfectly.


I'm still waiting for my opportunity to take a real bite out of crime. I imagine it would be tasty, meaty and substantial, just as McGruff sold it to me in the 80s and 90s. McGruff empowered us to stand up to bullies and engage in healthy behaviors. Plus, we could write him for some free safety-themed comic books and pamphlets. It just doesn't get any better than that.

Smokey the Bear

Smokey's been around for years, so it always surprises me a little that we still have forest fires. I mean, don't these mischievous match-wielding kids ever watch TV? If they had, they would know that they were the only hands on deck capable of preventing forest fires.

The More You Know

NBC really knew how to cut to the PSA core: short, to the point, and featuring celebrity spokespeople. They also threw in a fun shooting star-type logo with a memorable series of tones that I'm pretty sure are supposed to be the instrumental track of the words "the more you know." I've yet to verify this with actual research, but it's the way I've always interpreted it.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Ah, the classics. Talk about to the point--"This is your brain on drugs" practically invented to-the-pointness in public service messages. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions? Nope, think I can take it from here. Thanks, ominously sizzling frying pan.

I Learned it by Watching you

"Who taught you to do this stuff?" "You, alright? I learned it from watching you!" Yikes. Talk about a major buzzkill for recreationally drug-using parents. Guess what? Smoke one joint and your kids will turn into hardcore crack addicts. That's just basic science. They learned it from you, alright? They learned it from watching you.

Dontcha Put it in Your Mouth

This one is sort of terrifying. What exactly are those furry things supposed to be? If anyone has any insights, please enlighten me. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall when the ad guys were hawking this one to the Concerned Children's Advertisers. What do you think that studio recording session was like? It just leaves me with so many hilarious mental images about the possibilities.

Don't Copy that Floppy

This one truly speaks for itself, though today it would probably need a spokesperson to explain to kids what a floppy was. You know, the archaic giant computer disks from days of yore? Nowadays you can pirate anything online, but in the 80s and 90s your best bet was copying a game you borrowed from the primitive computer lab. If you did, someone would probably rap about it.

Check Yourself

In this FOX Kids series of PSAs, the network taught us to check ourselves before we wrecked ourselves while cleverly avoiding copyright infringement on the Ice Cube song. These ads taught us to imagine rewinding our unsportsmanlike actions and replacing them with good old fashioned polite conduct. At the time, we may have thought they were pretty helpful, but watching them now it's clear that they were among the cheesiest of public service ads.

Nickelodeon Orange Apeel

Until I just typed the words now, I'd completely forgotten Orange Apeel ever existed. Now that I've brought the memory to the forefront, though, it's clear as slime. Nickelodeon put its own slant on PSAs, producing a series of brief bumper-like spots teaching us a succinct but nevertheless valuable lesson. If it hadn't been for Omar from Wild and Crazy Kids' plea, I may never have become physically fit. I'm still meaning to do that, by the way.

Saved by the Bell: There's no Hope with Dope

Saved by the Bell - No Hope With Dope
Uploaded by ox-stargirl-xo. -

In one word, would I use dope? Nope. These kids are right! I appreciate Brandon Tarnikoff's hit idea for the new season. I'm not sure how much more of this I can paraphrase of this for laughs without generating any of my own original content, but truly I don't need any. It mocks for itself. From the moment these good looking teens uttered a single word each into the camera with deliberate seriousness, this was pure PSA gold.

Gopher Cakes

How fat did you feel at that moment you realized Gopher Cakes were fictional? Undoubtedly, to many of us they looked legitimately deliciousness, so it was a major let down to find that they were actually just poking fun at our tendency to consume foods that paved the path for our eventual morbid obesity. I still occasionally have dreams of covering one with whipped cream and swallowing it in a single gulp, like a python with a field mouse. Delicious.

These PSAs are certainly corny, but they do for the most part manage to get their point across. Into our teenage years many PSA agencies changed strategies and opted for cold, seriously threatening public service ads in lieu of the beloved lighthearted fare of our childhoods. Scare tactics work sometimes, sure, but we'll never be reminiscing about them in 2024. Stick to what you know, PSA people. Corny cartoons, puppets, and jingles are clearly the way to our still-impressionable hearts.

PS If you're looking for a drug-related PSA that's not on here, check out the full post here. In it I promise to do a part two about something hilarious I must have thought of at the time but have since forgotten, so here's my best shot at it. Not here, really; above. You know. Press Page Up. There you go.


Heather said...

When I was about 4 years old I remember seeing a PSA about a pregnant girl doing drugs. I dont remember the details of it, but I want to say that baby didnt survive and I cried and cried. I guess it worked because I have never done drugs

Alison said...

I just learned this year that Smokey the Bear is no longer living...because bears don't live to be sixty.

Words cannot describe my devastation.

Lil' Woman said...

I still smoked so I guess it didn't work...tsk tsk Lil Woman

Anonymous said...

My friend's dad worked for the local DNR so in second or third grade he came into our class with the full on Smokey the Bear get-up to teach us about forest fires or drugs, or whatever it was that he taught us. When he first got there he went around the room and shook everyone's hand. One of the boys ripped off a piece of 'fur' and proceeded to scream "He's not real!" Our young, impressional minds and hearts were forever hardened. ;) That was also around the same time the school sent us home with a sheet of Mr Yuk stickers. I remember going home and plastering them to absoultely everything under our bathroom sink, poisonous or not. Come to think of it, pretty much anything under a bathroom sink is going to be poisonous, so great job 8-year-old self!!

LAK said...

The PSA with the puppets singing "Don't put it in your mouth" is a classic here in Canada. I'm not gonna lie, we still sing it. And it seems to me that these two blue siblings may have had an incestuous relationship.

And, the beet on a stick. Such good work on making a beet an active member of the cast.

RAY J said...

lol Mr. Yuk... I remember taking a safety class at the YMCA as a kid and they gave us a bunch of Mr. Yuk stickers and me and my mom put em on all sorts of products, lol...

Smokey the Bear is now all about Wild Fires though, from his latest commercials... I guess the forests are now safe... or gone?

The best "this is your brain on drugs" commercial was the one with Rachael Leah Cook going crazy in the kitchen with a frying pan!

coulrophobic agnostic said...

I'm OBSESSED with PSAs. And these are some classics from my youth.

The one that freaked me out was "no one ever says I want to be a junkie when I grow up." I guess black and white slow-motion footage scares me.

For some reason, PSAs give me that weird adrenaline-y feeling normal people get from horror movies. There's seriously something wrong with me - but I think it's because I'm a bit phobic about people on television breaking the fourth wall. Yes, really. No, I don't know why.

I had a point, but I lost it, so...yeah, I got nothin'. Kickass post, but no TMNT telling us that drug dealers are dorks?

Laina said...

Messages from Concerned Childen's Advertisers are the BEST. There's a whole playlist of them somewhere on youtube...

But you left off the house hippo!! House hippo is the most AWESOME!

Here's a couple of playlists:


For anyone who's looking :)

Steve said...

There was an anti-smoking psa around 1985 that scared the crap out of me and made me afraid of the dark for a couple years. This high school student lights up a cigarette and the shot dissolves to a scene of the student floating in a black void, and his body has become part of a giant cigarette floating in the void. Does anyone else remember this?

Anonymous said...

Even today people still think obesity works by people overeating junk. That PSA is a testament to how far we haven't come.

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Dean Bender said...

Does anyone remember the 90s psa where a teenager says "yeah I might die, but everybody dies". I think it was anti gun but can't find it.

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