Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Best Public Service Announcement

The Internet, my always-faithful friend, might just let me down for the first time ever.

I've spent the entire morning searching and searching for a clip from The Best Public Service Announcment, and I can't find it. As someone who has subcontracted his memory out to Google, that's disturbing. I've come to rely on the Internet to be instantly available to tell me what that song in the commercial was (Bounce With Me by Kreesha Turner) or how to get raccoons out of an old shed I'm tearing down (scare them out, which, FYI, doesn't work) or, in this case, to help me see, again, the old Public Service Announcement that I remember so well from my youth.

See, like everyone everywhere, I stopped at age 12 listening to people tell me what the right thing to do is. That's why all public service announcements are aimed at little kids, after all. After age 12, they're useless. Teenagers take PSAs as instructional manuals -- oh, man, I didn't know you could drink and drive. I'm trying that tonight. Adults simply tune them out because they don't apply to us at all; who's got time to worry about something called an 'environment' when we've got real worries -- like those raccoons in the shed. Get to us enough, and we'll actively wish against your public service -- I hope the environment is destroyed, because then those stupid raccoons would have to leave.

Prior to age 12, people can still be reached by public service announcements, which is why if something is being done right, or if people are doing good in the world, it's being done by people under age 12. They're the only ones who are listening. Global warming, tobacco companies, terrorists-- all are being fought, exclusively, by people under the age of 12. Adults' only contribution to this fight is to buy Girl Scout Cookies.

Lest you doubt me, too, answer this: Why hasn't Brad Pitt rebuilt New Orleans yet? It's because he's not under 12. Probably the little progress they've achieved is Maddox's work.

I'm no different than anyone else: I never paid attention to Public Service Announcements after age 12. Up until age 12, I did give a hoot. I did prevent all the forest fires I could. I did do... something about tidal pools, which I remember being of keen interest to me as a kid.

And most of all, I deplored construction in the woods, because of The Best Public Service Announcement, which I can't find on the Internet because the Internet is letting me down.

As a kid, I lived in the suburbs, and they were a place of great peril (as we know). But right behind us was "the woods." We were among those fortunate people who lived in a new suburb, so most of the farmland and woods had not been, yet, turned into streets named after the things you would have previously found on farmland and in the woods. We didn't have "Elm Lane," we had elm trees. (I now live on Elm Lane, but I have hickory trees.)

The woods, as a kid, were great. We had the "canyon," which was a little valley full of sumac trees. We had "the pine tree" which was a pine tree. There was "the swamp," which was a swamp. Okay, so we weren't the most creative kids ever; we did at least have "Kill Hill," a very, very steep hill named for what we imagined it would do if anyone ever rode a bike down it.

I spent a great deal of time in the woods as a kid, playing 'guns,' and riding bikes (not down Kill Hill!) and climbing the pine tree and, once, running away from home (I got as far as the field of stinging nettles, where I learned why they're called "stinging" nettles and why you shouldn't walk through them in shorts. My running away from home was called off pretty quickly.) We played hockey on the frozen swamp and generally wandered through the woods like suburban Huckleberry Finns.

My connection with "the woods" was why the public service announcement I loved so much affected me so greatly. And I've checked yet again and yet again cannot track it down. Here's what I recall of it:

A kid walked through the forest, and tells the camera that he has a secret place he calls the forest. He tells us that animals run there and birds fly there, etc. He moves on to a secret place he calls the meadow, where again birds fly and flowers grow and things. Finally, he says he has another place: men work there, buildings grow there, and we see a construction site. "I hope they never find my secret places," the kid says.

That PSA stuck with me all my life. A few years back, we took the kids on a nature hike and discovered a little area where the river flowed over a couple rocks to make a sort-of waterfall where you could wade up to your knees and sit and cool down. We hung out there, splashing and playing and climbing around. When we got up to leave, I looked back and said "I hope they never find my secret place."

The rest of the family looked at me like I was nuts. But that's because they never saw The Best Public Service Announcement.

They air these PSAs, tv stations do, all the time, about a variety of topics. If you go over to Youtube and search for "Public Service Announcements," you'll find that there's something like 16,000 of them listed there. Most of them are variations on a theme of some earnest actor looking at a camera and telling you that heroin is bad or parenting is good or parents on heroin are bad. Most of them stink and most of them are forgettable and are quickly forgotten.

Why? First, because most of them aren't well done. They're done cheaply and quickly and ineffectively. Compare PSAs to 'real' ads. 'Real' ads have production values and a storyline and thought given to them because there are hundreds of millions of dollars being poured into making us believe what the ad tells us. More effort goes into getting us to buy a certain type of paper towel than anyone would ever imagine.

PSAs, on the other hand, are typically done by some celebrity who has to work off his or her community service and just wants this over with. So while insurance companies can use CGI animation and hire a writer to parody nature shows and get you to think a gecko is drinking from a bubbler, PSAs get that guy who played Ross to stand in front of a blue screen, tell us not to drink, and then wave that star from the Rainbow Brite toys around. The message is clear: they don't believe enough in their cause to put any effort into it, so why should we?

But more importantly, these ads don't speak to us. They don't communicate in the language of anyone over the age of 12. They don't talk to anyone who has worries like whether someone will ask them to the prom, or whether those raccoons will bite, or whether the Internet will let them down.

Maybe it's because they're too earnest. When I was a kid, I could watch that PSA and worry about my secret places. I could see, all too well, that the construction crews would arrive soon enough and the pine tree and the swamp and the canyon would be gone, covered by bulldozers and condos and coffee shops--

... which, by the way, is exactly what happened; I went back to my hometown a few years back and there's a park and a bike path and the swamp was filled in by condos. They found my secret place...

--and that earnest tone reached me and touched me, made me want to do something about it, and instilled in me a love that exists to this day of nature, of unspoiled wilderness and forests and meadows and swamps and rivers.

But I'm not earnest anymore. I'm not that simple anymore. Life when you're 8, 0r 10, is simple. There are woods, and you like them, and nobody should build condos there.

Life, when you're nearly 40, isn't so simple. There are woods, and you like them, but those woods have deer ticks in them and you can't take the kids there because of that, and also there are people who need a place to live, and not everyone can live in an apartment, you know, plus you kind of like your yard even though your house contributes to urban sprawl, and you have to give serious thought to maybe using some weedkiller but you heard that's probably poisonous for the lakes, and, yeah, it's not really wilderness if they put a hiking trail through it and wooden plank boardwalks, but it's better than tract housing, isn't it, and the kids need a place to play baseball...

Try putting all that into a public service announcement. You'll end up sounding like Ben Stiller in Reality Bites-- confused and hopeful and wanting not a big house but a nice house and thinking you know why the caged bird sings. (Ben's character was the only person in that entire movie with whom I could have spent 10 minutes; put me in a room with any other person in that movie and I'll strangle myself with my own tongue if necessary.)

As a kid you want to make the world a better place. As a grown-up, you'd like it to be better but you're not sure what you mean by "better."

It's probably just as well that I couldn't google up my PSA. It probably wouldn't live up to my memory. As it is, I keep The Secret Place PSA in my own secret place, a place where my earnest desire to help make the world a better place still lives and occasionally pops up its head and makes me, for a minute at least, try to improve things.

I have a secret place I call my memory... little kids play in the woods there, a pine tree grows there, and The Best Public Service Announcement still works there.

Pictures in this post, except for Woodsy Owl, were taken by Middle Daughter.

Click here to see all the other topics I’ve ever discussed!

Want a free t-shirt? Of course you do. Click there to find out how you can get one courtesy of The Best of Everything: Our Opinions Are Righter Than Yours.

Babies! Babies! Pets! Pets! wants you to submit photos of... Babies! and Pets!. Check out the photos there, and send your own to win a t-shirt!


Anonymous said...

Man, you hit it right on the head! That PSA has been stuck in my brain for the past 30 years. The only line I can remember well is the last one-"I know another place that has no name: diggers dig there, trucks drive there, houses grow there. I hope they never find my secret places." If you find it on the internet, please post a link. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I was just looking for it, too, but all I came acress was your blog!

Anonymous said...

I was just looking for it, too, but all I came across was your blog!

Dan said...

Add me to the list! I was also deeply affected by this PSA, and it must be going on 40 years now. It rings truer than ever, and I was hoping to find it so I could share with others. The search goes on!

BabylonDon said...


I was looking for that commercial this morning. I remember it well, because I'm the kid in the commercial. Or I was. A very long time ago. It's message always stuck with me, and I'm pleased that it had resonance with you as well.

Don Hamel

Anonymous said...

PLEASE post to youtube if anyone finds that PSA. I'm not sure but it could have been part of the Keep America Beautiful series?


pjvex said...

I have tried looking for this PSA twice in the past 6 years... I found a lot of obscure stuff including RIF commercials and the PBS tv show Hodge Podge Lodge, but can't find this PSA.

pjvex said...

I have tried looking for this PSA twice in the past 6 years... I found a lot of obscure stuff including RIF commercials and the PBS tv show Hodge Podge Lodge, but can't find this PSA.