The year is 1979. I’m four years old and living with my parents in an apartment complex in Norfolk, Virginia. My dad is in the Navy, stationed at the naval base there. It was a simpler time – a time filled with cliches and hyperbole.
As a four year old, my job was simple – eat, sleep, play, mistakenly drop the f-bomb because I misheard the lyrics to “Funkytown”, make sure my pees and poops make it into the potty, and wish Christmas was every day. Pretty standard fare for a kid who could say he was “this many” without having to use his thumb.
All of that would change one fateful Saturday morning. Somewhere in between the musical stylings of The Archies and the racist adventures of The Superfriends, a message was sent out across the airwaves. Its target – a four year old boy who loves Star Wars and thinks Santa Claus is real. What follows is the contents of that message, as delivered by a mysterious, fuzzy mission-tasker wearing a campaign hat:
“Remember – Only you can prevent forest fires. Only you.”
With his mission debrief complete, the television went back to showing a couple of purple-clad elves turning into stupid crap. My quad-annual counterpart’s body tensed as he allowed his young mind to process the task that was laid before him…
…and bawled his friggin’ eyes out. Are you kidding? He was only four! He couldn’t do such a large job all by himself! Not even a young Francis Xavier Cross could go out, get a job, and buy himself a choo-choo at that age.
It would take several minutes of consolation from that shattered young boy’s mother before he was able to understand that Smokey Bear was tasking everyone around the country with helping prevent large-scale pre-book burning.
And so went my first experience with American PSAs.
So, where are they nowadays? Sure, that jerk bear still pops up every so often to remind us that despite some of the ecological benefits of a good forest fire we still need to muffle our inner arsonist, but where are the rest of them?
What got me thinking about this was a segment that appeared on the Today Show a couple of weeks ago while I was in the ICU visiting my mom. The segment talked about the rise in child poisonings due to their ability to reach and become intimate with the chemicals found in most household cupboards. My first, immediate thought was “What ever happened to Mr. Yuk?” And from that question, a realization dawned on me:
Smokey had set me up to die on that mission.
No, actually what I realized was that not only do you not see Mr. Yuk anymore, but you don’t really see any PSAs directed at kids anymore.
Growing up as a latch-key kid in the eighties, PSAs for kids were just as frequent as Menudo videos or shows about bloopers and practical jokes. Saturday morning was a wide open field for slipping in a little education with the weekly dose of half hour toy commercials. Everything from Dick Van Dyke teaching you how to stop, drop, and roll to a yellow bladder with arms and legs showing you how to make healthy snacks to an animated cat peddling the benefits of learning how to read would find its way across the airwaves and into the homes of America’s youth while they we’re still trying to figure out what the hell a Monchichi was or why that damn Rubik’s Cube could talk and make magic for a bunch of latino kids.
Even NBC’s head honcho at the time – Brandon Tartikoff – practically cornered the market on PSAs. Using almost every celeb who had sold their soul to the Peacock (and even a couple that hadn’t), Tartikoff managed to inundate their viewership during daytime and prime time with “One to Grow On” and “The More You Know”, respectively.
And let’s not forget the pioneer of the PSA – Schoolhouse Rock, man! Schoolhouse Rock!
So what happened to them? I can personally attest to the fact that they were effective. I can still remember most of the PSAs I was subjected to growing up, and I can especially remember the Mr. Yuk jingle. Hell – I can still recite it, much to the chagrin of the odd stares I’m getting right now. These messages resonated with me to the point that they still clank around in my head to this day. A friend of mine found a clip on YouTube the other day of the “Chompers” PSA where the Fonzie-looking guy sings about chewing crunchy foods to strengthen teeth. I was amazed at myself when I realized I could still sing the lyrics without messing up a line. Everyone else was amazed that I had the cajones to do it in the middle of a restaurant.
Is it because of how “jaded” and “cynical” we’ve grown as a society nowadays that keeps these bits of fun and educational kibble out of our living rooms? Are we really at the point where we think kids will just look at them as a lame attempt by grown-ups to seem cool and connect to youth in a tricky way to feed them edutainment?
I hope not. For whatever reason is keeping them off the air, it’s a shame. In a modern society where we have clever writers who put out great products like Phineas and Ferb, Batman: Brave and the Bold, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, it seems like it wouldn’t be difficult at all to bring back bold, smart, and funny PSAs that could connect to the current pre-adults the way the classics did back when I was a kid. That way, I wouldn’t have to see any more segments on morning news shows about how kids seem to keep sending themselves to the emergency room because the purple liquid under the sink looked nummy.
At the very least, they could craft some new material that won’t make four year olds cry.