A couple of days ago I was pulling into the grocery store parking lot when I was struck by a sudden sneeze. Not really a big deal, unless you happen to live in my head…
Which I do.
Because of that fact, I felt a moment of panic and immediately thought of a Public Service Announcement from my childhood, just as I do EVERY SINGLE TIME I sneeze while driving a car.
From the mid 70s to the mid 80s there was a political battle over the nationwide mandatory 55 mph law. Nobody, except the elderly and my father, wanted to drive 55 mph, but we were in the midst of an energy crisis. There were lines at the gas pump and people were desperate enough to siphon gas out of other people’s cars. (I know because I saw it on CHiPs in between the freeway car flips and the roller skating scenes.) The 70s were a good time to ride a bike but who wanted to do that when you could drive a Lincoln Continental and look like a pimp?
Anyway, they came out with a PSA wherein a woman was driving her stylish 70s vehicular tank on the freeway. But she wasn’t going 55 mph. Oh no. She was clearly exceeding the speed limit by at least 5 mph, careening along at a dangerous 60-61 mph. Suddenly she sneezed and there was a deadly car crash. The message was clear:
If you sneeze while driving, you will die!
That’s the danger of PSAs. They impart a strong message, but not always the one they intended, especially when played for young, impressionable brains hopped up on Pixy Stix and waiting for an episode of The Muppets to come on.
For instance, the American Lung Association had an anti-smoking PSA with a dolphin taking a cigarette out of a man’s mouth, which rocked my world. Where did these sea mammals buy cigarettes? Where did they carry their money? And how did they keep their matches dry? I had disturbing visions of dolphins and seals sitting around smokey tables in seedy back rooms playing poker. It never occurred to me that these commercials were actually about humans.
The famous This is your brain/This is your brain on drugs PSA contained vivid imagery which seemed to suggest that cracking your skull open and dumping your brain into a hot cast iron pan wouldn’t turn out well. Nor would frying your organs in butter. I made sure that my organs and narcotics were cold and butter-free.
Remember Iron Eyes Cody? He was the majestic Native American in the Keep America Beautiful PSA who paddled down an industrial river and then stood with a tear in his eye on the side of the highway, while people threw garbage out their car windows. I understood that message.
A Native American cries every time you throw a McDonald’s wrapper on the ground. And also Native Americans like to hang out on the side of freeways. Further more, Native Americans like to canoe near factories. It seemed to me that Native Americans were lacking in good hang outs and that concerned me. What if I sneezed while driving and crashed into a Native American hootenanny on the interstate? That PSA spurred my decades-long obsession with Native Americans and their need for places to socialize.
(Ironically, Iron Eyes Cody was actually the son of Italian immigrants, so he was Native American by way of Sicily, but let’s not quibble over details.)
Then I was crushed by the PSAs which informed me that Native Americans were alcoholics because the white man had taken everything away, which explained why Iron Eyes Cody had forgotten he was actually Italian and come to think of it, also why he was hanging out on the side of the freeway. Maybe he was crying because he wanted his stuff back and he was hoping someone would throw it out of their car window.
I was deeply ashamed that my Dad had taken everything away from the Native Americans, which, judging from my Dad’s closet, consisted of velour sweaters and Carlton cigarettes.
I pledged to make it up to the Native American community by becoming a minority. I wore a lot of silver, got a perm and some parachute pants, learned to do the Running Man and tried my best not to be white, which as far as I know did nothing to improve the plight of the Native Americans, though for the record I haven’t seen any standing on the side of the freeway, so maybe I’m wrong.
PSAs are responsible for a whole slew of my misplaced anxieties. And the propaganda remains embedded in my brain like psychological herpes, just waiting for an opportunity to flare up while pulling in to the Trader Joe’s parking lot. I’m going to make my own PSA, warning about the danger of PSAs, so that the next generation can be spared this torment.
This message was brought to you by a partnership for a PSA-free America. (And by partnership, I mean me.)