The Next Thing That Scares the Crap Out of You Will Be a British Public Service Announcement
With few exceptions, American public service announcements (PSAs) have been a source of ridicule, using Squaresville dialog and warning us against stuff we don’t find worthy of worry. After seeing some British PSAs and drawing from my own experience, I thought it would be interesting to look at a few examples and examine differences between the two.
In the early and mid-80s, American PSAs aimed at kids and teens mostly featured goofy, cartoony attempts to teach good habits (remember Slim Goodbody? Still around, though updated). A lot of the time they were cartoons, like the G.I. Joe. “Knowing is half the battle” clips at the end of an episode that taught kids fire safety or not to take candy from strangers.
Since then the U.S. has gotten a little tougher with PSAs, but not much. Recall the infamous anti-marijuana ad featuring two kids getting high and playing with a gun. Also in the last few years, The Truth ad campaign, aimed at preventing teen smoking, has shown caskets, tracheotomies, and other slightly more graphic than normal spots. Still, these campaigns show nothing too disturbing. (And if you happened to be high while watching eggs cook during the “This is your brain on drugs” PSA, you probably just got hungry.)
These are about the only “hard-hitting” PSAs you’ll see though, for a couple reasons: there isn’t an official marijuana lobby in this country (yet), and the tobacco industry has fallen out of favor over the last couple decades here, so making it the bogeyman and piling on isn’t very risky. Tobacco ads can’t run on airways anyway, so there are no broadcast advertising dollars to lose. Let’s look, then, at something everyone in the world likes or at least does from time to time: talking on cell phones or texting while driving.
We know this is a stupid, dangerous thing to do, but the vast majority of us do it anyway. Since texting, especially, while driving increases risk of accident by about a zillion percent, we can expect to see a stern PSA during American Idol commercials or at least Hannah Montana, right? Probably not, considering that a 2003 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study whose data showed sharp increases in accidents due to cell phone usage while driving was never finished because the agency feared it would “anger Congress.” Contrast that with this British PSA against texting while driving (this is pretty violent, so maybe NSFW):
What do we take away from this? When it comes to ads that try to break people of dangerous habits, the Brits do not fuck around. When I was in London on a school trip in the late 1980’s, I saw a PSA that warned kids not to play around electrical stations. It didn’t do this by having a cutesy, big-eyed lightning bolt named Sparky sing a fun song like “Don’t Get Zinged!” No, British TV showed a 6 or 7 year-old kid climbing a fence surrounding an electrical station while his teenage brother (13 or so) screamed at him not to. The little kid touches something and gets burnt to a crisp, and so does his older brother while trying to save him. The commercial ends by zooming out and showing their smoking black carbonized corpses. As I said, the Brits do not fuck around. Google “British public service announcements”, check a few out, and you’ll see what I mean.
Americans obviously don’t have much of a problem with graphic violence on screen—just watch any CSI episode, or look at the success of the Saw or Hostel movies. So if we’re serious enough about a public menace to put out a PSA about it, let’s do it right and scare the hell out of people. The Brits did it to me, and as a result in the 20 years afterward I’ve never scaled a fence surrounding an electrical station or peed on anything connected to the electrical grid. Mission accomplished.