Television was not a safe place for sensitive, young viewers in the 1970s. Even though the number of channels was limited, I remember being scared and creeped out a lot. Sometimes it was movies or movie trailers, but the most unexpected creepiness came during commercial breaks with public service announcements. It wasn’t always the video and music that provoked a reaction. Sometimes words spoken in just the right tone of voice were enough.
Fire Prevention PSA
I remember seeing Smokey the Bear on TV a lot with his slogan, “Remember… Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires.” He was a symbol used by the U.S. Forest Service as part of their Wildfire Prevention Campaign. He was a familiar, friendly character on TV and in person at his booth at our annual county fair. And there was merchandise. My brother and I even had brown, felt Smokey the Bear ranger hats with an adjustable cord to cinch around your chin. Sometimes in PSAs Smokey lectured you in that stern, deep voice and you took his message seriously. But in one PSA, a forest was burning and then the camera turned to Smokey, with a single tear rolling from his eye, saying “Only You.” It was disturbing as a child to see him crying.
But the creepiest Smokey PSA was in 1973 when Joanna Cassidy is softly speaking to you about being careful not to start a fire when you’re in the forest. The camera slowly gets closer to her face, and she reaches her hand behind her head. Then, suddenly her face is pulled off and we see my friend, Smokey the Bear laughing. He says, “If you knew it was me, would you have listened?” Yikes! He was wearing a real woman’s body as a disguise. Not my Smokey!
Preventing Child Abuse PSA
These PSAs were often sad or jolting. In the creepy category, was a PSA of a camera going into an empty house with a voice that says, “Something’s Wrong” and gives the statistics on child abuse. Meanwhile, what sounds like a child’s musical toy, maybe a xylophone, is playing in the background. The shot ends on a 45 spinning on a record player in a child’s room and the contact information for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. The absence of people in this video made it startling. I remember expecting the camera’s final shot to be something horrible. So, I was relieved, but still creeped out.
Child Curfew PSA
“It’s 10 p.m. Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” Just this question and the tone of voice were creepy to me. Nothing on screen, but these words. I remember wondering if someone’s children weren’t home and their parents didn’t notice. Meanwhile, I was watching TV in the living room, alone. Short message. Still creepy.
Preventing Venereal Disease PSA
I had no idea what VD was in the 70s. Based on this catchy song with so many active, smiling people, “VD is for everybody,” it seemed like an ad promoting VD as a good time. A happy song, then at the end a voice tells you to see your doctor. This was a confusing message and creepy as a child. Thank you, American Social Health Association!
Seat Belt PSA
A strong push was made for people to use seat belts in the 70s. But it was a new idea, and I don’t remember it being a habit for most people. I vaguely remember people in front seats were more likely to wear seat belts, but a common belief was that back seat passengers were safe and didn’t need a seat belt. I remember lying down across the back seat for long car trips. I’m not even sure our old family car had seat belts. New York didn’t have any seat belt laws until the early 80s.
This creepy seat belt PSA had jolting visuals of healthy, average people, each giving an excuse for why they don’t wear a seat belt. Then a drum roll, lights flash and each person reappears with casts or wrapped in bandages. For the final image of a person, a voice says, “There are a million and one reasons for not wearing a seat belt. Some are real killers”… Drum roll then blank screen. The blankness was pretty jarring after seeing a pattern of damaged people appearing. My little mind had to process what that meant.
If the point of PSAs is to jolt you into action and to remember the message, these were certainly memorable to me decades later. Though I don’t think young children were the target audience for most of these messages. And maybe these were only creepy to sensitive children. After all, my can’t-miss show for most of the 70s was the Wonderful World of Disney… So, did I miss any PSAs aired in the 1970s that had a creep factor?