September 13, 2013

Deciding that the original campaign was too preachy and didactic, the Ad Council is taking another whack at Smokey the Bear to turn him from a finger(paw?)-wagger into a hugger. Instead of warning that Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires, he hugs you when you make a point of dousing your campfire properly. “Already posted it!” your girlfriend says. SO VIRAL!

This is the new path for the public service announcement (PSA), as advertising agencies seek to convey healthful messages in ways that are hip and approachable and not didactic. Which, as far as I can tell, is exactly contradictory to the whole essence of a PSA. Then again, it may not work. That’s what they always say: The key to looking cool is to try really, really hard and care a lot about what people think of you. That traditionally has been a successful approach.

The one trouble with ad campaigns and PR outreach and efforts to bring Hip, Approachable Social Media into play on behalf of old-fashioned things is that sometimes they overdo it to the point that you can tell they have no idea what’s actually going on. Smokey, for instance, is on the record on Facebook as being pro-hipsters — which no one is, not even hipsters themselves.

I worry that this is where our PSAs are headed. “Smoking? I won’t retweet THAT!”

“If you text and drive, you aren’t getting any Pinterest Pins from me! Did I mention that I’m your peer? I’m your peer.”

“I’m not adding you to my tumbl-blog roster without a safety belt!”

“Wash your hands. As a fellow millennial, the only thing I want going viral is my YouTube V-Blog!”

As I tried to look at updating the famous Ad Council PSA’s for a hip, new generation (the trouble with this process is that every generation is a hip, new generation, and, no matter what you do, 10 years later people will look at the pants you were wearing and cringe), I realized that, thanks to some benevolent force that was watching over my youth, I missed seeing most of these during my formative nightmare years. Thank heavens for that, because these things are terrifying. Well, they’re at the sweet spot between almost oddly goofy-in-retrospect and pure horror that especially scars you as a child.

If I hadn’t missed them, I would be a huddled shell of a person incapable of leaving the house. No wonder the ’90s and ’80s were so strange. Everyone must constantly have been battling PSA-induced flashbacks of friendly people with shoulder pads dying horrible deaths either in car accidents (after drinking and driving or not wearing seat belts) or in their homes from failure to wear condoms — or from letting guilt eat away at them after they failed to intervene on behalf of the victims of domestic violence.

Ads define you in space and time. They’re neat tree-rings for time spent in a particular place — 800-588-2300 EMPIRE! Today!, anyone? PSAs, which air nationwide, have an especially potent position as a base of reference for people with little else in common.

Of course, as our viewing habits change and we move away from the old-fashioned model of All Watching Something At The Same Time, it gets harder to create this kind of normative community. But you can still try. Here are some suggestions for updating the Ad Council’s most classic campaigns:

You Can Learn A Lot From A Dummy: This doesn’t need any updating. It is still completely terrifying. Not only does it make me want to wear a safety belt at all times, it makes me want to avoid cars altogether.

Crying Indian: The Crying Indian ad plays, with Iron-Eyes Cody canoeing along in his full regalia and weeping at the pollution around him, but pans out to reveal several Native Americans watching the ad and cringing. Then appears the text, “Cultural Appropriation Makes A Prop Out of Me.” (Or something better than that. I’m not Don Draper.) Note: This would be great to show during D.C. football games!

The Peace Corps’ “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” is now “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever ‘Like’ – Get It? PLEASE SAY YOU GET IT.”

Or, if the Peace Corps is not hip and topical enough, try an ad for Teach For America: “The Toughest Job You Can Definitely Leave After Two Years! Just Two Years!”

Stop The Texts, Stop The Wrecks: Don’t text and drive, or people will actually physically call you on the telephone, and that’s a fate worse than almost anything I can conjure up.

Fight Polio!: This campaign is just a poster with someone staring at “The View” on TV. “Not sure whom to believe about vaccinating your kids, Jenny McCarthy or The Pretty Overwhelming Consensus Of Science? Don’t have kids yet.”

Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk: “Facebook Friends Don’t ‘Like’ It When Facebook Friends Drive Drunk” lacks a certain something, but it seems to be where the campaign is headed.

Talk To Your Kids About Sex, Or You’ll Be Forced To Talk To Your Kids About Sex, Or You’ll Be Forced To Talk To Your Kids About Sex: This ad is a Mobius strip of awkwardness.

Or, hey, just let the Geico people do it. I’m sure they can come up with something great. What’s one more ad campaign when you’ve already got 36 or 37 going at all times?

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.