By Joe Badalamenti
Imagine, if you will, that you are babysitting a young, impressionable family member and they are watching a cartoon, let’s say SpongeBob. How would you feel if, during the episode, the characters decided to kneel as a sign of respect for the “brave soldiers fighting in Afghanistan?” What if they spoke to the audience about the “need for universal healthcare” or the “dangers of socialism?” Chances are high that you will have one of two reactions: either you won’t mind so long as the message adheres to your own political views, or you would feel that such a message would be inappropriate for a cartoon targeted at a young demographic. The title I’ve chosen makes the point of this example clear. Of all people to speak about the issue of COVID vaccination, Sesame Street characters Big Bird and Elmo decided to share their experience of learning about and/or getting the vaccine. While this didn’t exactly happen in the show itself, the message conveyed by these fictional characters is nonetheless political. While political messaging and PSAs have been around since PeeWee Herman warned kids about the dangers of crack cocaine, the question raised by this event is as follows:
Where is the line between a public service announcement and propaganda spread only to boost the legitimacy of an institution?
We can look at examples of effective public messaging in pop media. Arguably the best types are not overt PSAs but allegorical works of fiction that convey a political message. A perfect example is one commonly taught in high school: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the evils of slavery is a prominent theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, what makes the book work is the depth of the message itself. Instead of conveying a surface level message or pamphlet providing general attitudes opposing slavery, author Harriet Beecher Stowe writes a lengthy novel which explores the issue at a profound level of detail. This resulted in the book reaching unprecedented levels of fame. Another way to effectively send a political or societal message is to treat the audience as adults. This is what shows such as The Simpsons (especially the early seasons) and Bojack Horseman do when they decide to comment on a topical issue. While these shows are primarily made for adults or teenagers, they are generally averse to falling into the trap of talking down to the audience from their soapbox. Notice that all of these examples are not PSAs in the general sense. This is because interweaving the message into the story itself plays into the strengths of fiction as being… well, made up. Compare this to the standard PSA where fictional characters are pulled into the real world to send an announcement to the people. It’s much more jarring and surreal. While not every message is equal, messaging through storytelling is much more effective than your typical PSA.
So then what differentiates propaganda from mere public service announcements? One possible answer would be the authorial intent. This is very difficult to prove, however, especially when the author is different from the speaker. When one thinks of propaganda, images of Nazi Germany or North Korea come to mind. Is such a system possible in a liberal country such as the United States? Let’s take the example of the many drug PSAs of the 80s and 90s. There are numerous examples of these PSAs, but they all convey the same message: don’t do drugs! Well, there’s a clear message and drugs can clearly cause harmful effects, so what’s the issue? Well, you also likely have been told this message by your parents, extended family, teachers, pastors, neighbors, and any other guardian or responsible influence in your life. So if there is already an effective means to spread this message, then why spread an obvious message? At the time of these drug PSAs, the 80s and 90s, the War on Drugs was in full effect, with certain policies leading to harsh prison sentences for both drug dealers and drug users. These policies inflicted damage on many communities, especially African-American communities. Moreover, these policies had little impact on the amount of drug usage in America. If this is the case, why would these destructive policies be kept in effect for many years? Perhaps the drug PSAs were used to provide legitimacy for such policies. The mechanism is as follows: a government decides that it wants to promote or discourage a certain action; it makes policies that encourage or target the action (i.e. drug use); pop culture spreads messages that are in line with these policies in order for the audience to view them positively regardless of the impact. Returning to the modern controversy caused by our favorite puppet friends, it seems that this incident also fits the framework described. So does this mean that Elmo and Big Bird are government agents just like Ted Cruz said? I wouldn’t go that far, but I would also be cautious of any topical issues addressed in “PSA”.
So we have described a mechanism of propaganda used in liberal countries. However, the question stands: is this good? For the most part, that depends on who is in charge at the time of the propaganda. If it’s a group of corrupt, despotic individuals, then it’s safe to say that there is something nefarious hidden behind the so-called PSA. If our vision is to live in a free country of independent thought, then any trace of such a system should be called out and dismantled, though many have already called out this phenomenon. If you are worried about the effects of such a system on a young family member, the prudent thing to do would be to control the media that they are exposed to; parental guidance has been a societal norm for a reason. As for the rest of society, hopefully, they come to seek out the truth for themselves.
Thumbnail Credit: Sheba_Also 43,000 photos, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons