Movies + TV

Literally the Best Thing Ever: Ancient PSAs

Including the most disturbing and wonderful cautionary video ever made.

A few months ago my husband and I got a Roku streaming player so that we could stream Netflix movies and shows on our TV. Once it was hooked up, we were delighted to discover that it also gave us access to a bunch of other free channels—cooking stuff, nature documentaries, the Smithsonian Channel, and Midnight Pulp, which advertises itself as “your favorite grimy video store right in your living room” and was full of awesomely terrible B (actually more like C and D) movies. Then one night I stumbled upon a channel we’d never noticed before, and hit the freaking jackpot.

It was late and my brother was over, and we were flipping through channels trying to find something ridiculous to make fun of together. That’s when I caught sight of a channel I’d never noticed before: Pub-D Hub. Its description read: “Classic films, TV shows, cartoons, and radio programs.” Curious, I asked my brother to click over, and a list of categories popped up: Action/Adventure. Cartoons. And then the thing that is making this whole piece sound like a commercial for Roku even though I swear it’s not: Cautionary Films.

Oh my god, you guys. VINTAGE CAUTIONARY FILMS! Aka educational advertising, aka public service announcements. Have you seen these? If you have, then you know why at that moment I yelled, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” like a sports fan watching the Super Bowl. I may have even jumped up and down a little, anticipating a trove of vintage educational videos warning the American public about the dangers of drugs, “heavy petting,” and girls’ not taking home ec. Pub-D turned out to stand for public domain—films whose copyrights had expired, so the channel could play them for free—and it had all that stuff plus movies about proper driving (and walking!!!) skills, party planning, and safety precautions for women working in factories during World War II (no billowing sleeves or jewelry, ladies, they can get caught in the machinery and MAIM you—that film is called, no joke, “Danger—Women at Work!”).

These little dramas began appearing on American televisions (and sometimes before movies in theaters and at drive-ins) during the second world war and were initially aimed at getting people psyched to enlist in the military, buy war bonds, and conserve war materials like fuel. After the war, the PSAs expanded to cover a broad range of subjects, including forest fires, drunk driving, and grooming.

PSAs are still around, of course—there are those ones about bullying, the ones about texting while driving, and that whole “The More You Know” series. But my favorites are the old commercials, especially the ones from the ’50s through the ’70s. And here’s the part where I prove I’m not shilling for Roku: you don’t need a special streaming player or a cable channel to watch these gems. Since they’re all public domain, you can watch them all for free, legally, on YouTube.

I’d suggest you start by searching something like “1960s marijuana PSAs.” That’ll get you such masterpieces as 1969′s “Keep Off the Grass,” in which a Tom, a 35-year-old-looking “teenager,” gets in trouble when his mother finds a joint in his room. She weeps uncontrollably as Tom’s father lectures him about the dangers of marijuana:

I watched that one when I was having a really stressful day, and it had me laughing my ass off. It also had what was probably the opposite of its intended effect on me: when Tom pointed out that his dad had no right to judge his pot smoking when he himself drank and smoked, I was all, “Yeah! What a hypocrite!”

Once you’ve found a couple of these, you can just let yourself slide down the rabbit hole of suggested videos in YouTube’s sidebar—that should be enough entertainment for several evenings. Some of the films are super short, like this hilarious one called “VD Is for Everybody,” which teaches us that everyone—the mailman, the ballerina, the mom of the newborn baby, and who knows, maybe the baby itself—has venereal disease, and perhaps because it’s the ’70s and the lighting is so nice and soft and they’re accompanied by a swinging little tune, they all seem pretty happy about it:

Now, I know STDs are serious (I am the daughter of a public health nurse, after all)! But sometimes I need to laugh at serious stuff to make it less stressful, and the old-timey nature of these films provides enough distance that I can.

Some of these old ads stress me out more, though—like the heinous and infuriating “Boys Beware” and its counterpart, “Girls Beware,” both from 1961, which warn boys about homosexuals (because they’re all mentally ill pedophiles) and girls against flirting with older boys (because they will probably rape you or get your pregnant and it’ll be all your fault). I rolled my eyes and yelled at the TV screen during those, but that felt kinda good too.

My brother and I cracked up like crazy at 1951’s “Duck and Cover,” which employs a cartoon turtle named Bert to demonstrate to children how to react to an atomic bomb—either when the sirens go off or when you happen to notice “the flash” in the sky. As the title suggests, you duck and cover:

At one point they actually suggest covering your face with a piece of newspaper for protection. Newspaper, which (a) is highly flammable, and (b) it’s an atomic bomb, people! What good is newspaper going to do against radiation? Though I guess that’s not really surprising coming from a time when doctors were recommending specific brands of cigarettes to their patients. A fun little side trip you might end up on when you start exploring old cautionary films is old commercials like this Camel ad in which where doctors endorse their favorite smokes:

I love all of these movies for their time-capsule quality: a lot of them were on TV when my mom was a girl, and I feel like they give me a peek into what her world was like. When I mentioned “Duck and Cover” to my mom, rolling my eyes and laughing over its absurdity, she nodded gravely and told me that she remembers being hyper aware back then—at the beginning of the Cold War and not long after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—of every bomb-shelter sign in her town.

I’ve saved the best one for last—it is called “One Got Fat” and it is ostensibly, at least according to the description on Roku, about “bicycle safety,” which sounded so boring to me when I read it that I waited way too long to watch it. Maybe if they had just come out and said it was about creepy-looking half-human, half-simian children who are gruesomely killed off for the most minor traffic infractions while a cheerful adult narrator cheerfully narrates their gruesome deaths and their friends just carry on like nothing happened, I would have gotten here sooner:

Now I make everyone watch it when they come over. I’m not sure what is supposed to be “educational” about it, nor what it is “cautioning” us against (Trusting adults to be kind and reasonable, maybe? Or befriending hideous half-human/half-monkey children?), but it never fails to flabbergast me and fill me with real awe and wonder, and that is a public service indeed. ♦

26 Comments

  • marineo April 17th, 2013 11:06 PM

    I saw duck and cover on an episode of mst3k, such a quality psa

  • decemberflower April 17th, 2013 11:18 PM

    As I scrolled through this post I wondered whether you would mention the Cold War Duck + Cover PSAs. I LOVE those… something about them is so funny. We watched them literally on repeat in my history class last year. It’s interesting to look back at a time when America was living in fear of these bombings to the point where these drills were taking place in schools, when we know now that the bombs never ended up being dropped.

  • emilyowls April 17th, 2013 11:30 PM

    the anti-meth/above the influence psa’s of now are SO TERRIFYING.

  • Ladymia69 April 17th, 2013 11:49 PM

    There are also tons of things like this at the Internet Archive at http://archive.org/details/movies. There are even commercials that were shown on drive-in theater screens.

  • Lily April 17th, 2013 11:56 PM

    Oh we watched Duck and Cover in my American history class! Everybody was singing it for the rest of the day.

  • Abby April 18th, 2013 12:19 AM

    The monkey-kid one was positively terrifying… like… the kid at the end is just like, “Oh, all my friends died, but I’m just gonna sit here and eat my picnic with all their lunches lined up creepily and smile because I’m not a monkey and I’ve never done one slightly irresponsible thing ever.”

    • Anaheed April 18th, 2013 12:33 AM

      That part was CHILLING. That kid is a monster!

  • myy April 18th, 2013 12:59 AM

    I’ve seen the Duck and cover video before, but these are CRAZY. My favorite is the mom in Keep Off The Grass! I laughed so much!

    http://cactusflowerblog.blogspot.com/

  • trassel April 18th, 2013 4:34 AM

    Haha, The duck and cover film! I love the scene in “The iron giant” when they parody that one. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAiYwADzr2Q

    • abby111039 April 18th, 2013 10:20 AM

      That’s exactly what I thought of when I saw that one! Anyhow, I adore all these videos. So cool!

  • Flobo13 April 18th, 2013 6:10 AM

    There’s this old English 1970s one about swimming in rivers that’s become like cult. It’s genuinely the scariest thing ever. At least it does the job, right?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0xmSV6aq0g

  • NotReallyChristian April 18th, 2013 8:08 AM

    The Newspaper thing isn’t as stupid as it sounds. Pale surfaces reflect light, so having something pale over your face could reflect the flash of the bomb and prevent horrible ‘flash burns’. In his book ‘Hiroshima’ John Hersey speaks about women who had the patterns of their kimono burned onto their skin because the dark areas would transfer the heat onto the body while the pale ones reflected it. Obviously if you’re near the epicentre of the explosion then it won’t make any difference, but there were a lot of cases where such slight things as which direction people were facing and whether they were standing near a window meant the difference between life and death: if you only have a few seconds to prepare then putting a newspaper over your face could certainly save your sight and maybe your life.

    (Fires don’t start immediately except at the epicentre, where you’d be dead anyway, so as long as you move your newspaper before power lines or whatever cause secondary fires you’ll be ok).

    • Emelie April 18th, 2013 6:50 PM

      I think the key point here is that newspaper (or any kind of paper) is important for stopping alpha particle radiation, which is an extremely ionizing (read: bad for you) form of radiation with a super-short absorption range. Alphas are stopped by substances as thin as paper, so, yes, newspaper can actually protect you from radiation in the event of a nuclear bomb.

      (Thank you AP Chemistry!)

  • allydoubleyou April 18th, 2013 10:55 AM

    Whoa, whoa, whoa. How could you forget Reefer Madness???
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Azf320JDdqU

    My friend and I bought this movie in high school and watched it in my parents’ basement. My dad came down halfway through and was like “holy shit, is this Reefer Madness?!” and he watched the rest with us. It was a great day. This is a completely classic movie. It’s, like, THE old PSA movie.

    (Also, there was a movie musical based off of Reefer Madness, also called Reefer Madness, in 2005. It stars the love of my life, aka Alan Cumming.)

  • hellorose April 18th, 2013 12:34 PM

    there was this bizarre one on tv here in the UK a few years ago which featured a little girl getting hit by a car then dragging herself over to a tree where she sort of propped herself up and said ‘hit me at 30 and there’s an 80% chance i’ll live. hit me at 40 and there’s an 80% chance i’ll die’ – which is fine, and i’m sure very true, but it always seemed more like she was saying ‘go ahead! hitting me at 30mph is completely fine!’ rather than ‘don’t hit me at all, you moron, look where you’re going’.

  • CorduroyMagic April 18th, 2013 5:56 PM

    Orv has some really nice handwriting

  • KatGirl April 18th, 2013 6:09 PM

    Has anybody else watched “Don’t Put It In Your Mouth”? It’s made for five-year-olds but I watched it when I was seven or eight. The blue things are frikkin’ scary.

  • roxy189 April 18th, 2013 6:25 PM

    I have been watching these for a really long time and am glad you finally mentioned them! The best ones can be found on Shaggylock’s you tube channel.

  • Ariella95 April 18th, 2013 9:53 PM

    Yes – Duck and Cover! We watched it in my American History class and I had the weirdly cheerful tune stuck in my head all day.

  • unicornconnect April 19th, 2013 4:22 AM

    The vd one made me want to pee my pants. There should be a musical!

  • flocha April 19th, 2013 3:53 PM

    I spent a terrified evening home alone, after watching the monkey-bike one

  • PearlFog April 20th, 2013 1:44 PM

    Just wanted to share a Scottish classic with yous:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DgTK_xJK_hg

    Ironically, the ad was so memorable that ‘I really fancy you, so how about it?’ is now quite the witty chatup line for people around my age!

  • eremiomania April 21st, 2013 1:57 AM

    I think everyone needs to read this (http://www.cracked.com/article_19895_the-5-most-excessively-creepy-childrens-educational-videos.html) article on the 5 ‘most excessively creepy children’s educational videos’ because not only does it contain our very own One Got Fat at #5, the videos in the article may be the creepiest things I have ever read about. That’s right, read about, because I was simply too terrified to actually watch the videos after reading their gruesome summaries.

  • GlitterKitty April 21st, 2013 1:02 PM

    This is hilarious. We used to watch this one from the 80s in elementary school about bus safety. It involved kids in total 80s outfits cheerfully helping each other jump out the back of the bus. It was very official considering all there were doing was going out a door. I also loved the religious ones I used to see in (Catholic) elementary school. They were also from the 80s and they all sat around talking about how exciting church was. Not quite the same as a PSA but still quite entertaining and very strange.

  • Tyra April 23rd, 2013 6:12 PM

    I don’t know why but these are so enthralling. I just want to watch them all.

  • meels April 27th, 2013 3:08 PM

    holy shizzle, can’t believe that last one was ever made let alone broadcast. both creepy, absurd and hilarious. i feel like that narrator is gonna narrate my nightmares from now on