Advertising concerns: A retrospective look at Canadian public service announcements

By in Culture

Anyone who grew up watching cartoons on YTV in the 90s or early 2000s should be familiar with the frequently surreal and occasionally disturbing world of Canadian-made public service announcements.

One of the primary distributors for these commercials was Concerned Children’s Advertisers, later renamed Companies Committed to Kids, a non-profit originally founded in 1990 that dissolved in 2017. During the organization’s 27-year run, it created almost 40 advertisements that aired on Canadian television.

These commercials targeted tough topics including substance abuse, bullying, self-esteem and the perils of eating things you find on the floor. The ads varied in tone and medium, alternating between live-action film, computer-generated animation and puppetry, to create shorts that could be either innocuous or kind of creepy.

 

 

One infamous campaign produced by CCA was “What’s Your Thing.” The ad served as a minute-long experimental ode to non-conformity. It featured one Canadian youth skateboarding, another training in the art of the katana and one kid who inexplicably really loves bugs, among others. It was a quotable — albeit cheesy — exercise in late-90s
ad-industry cool and an example of a CCA ad that was actually a lot of fun.

 

 

The strangest of these ads was called “Don’t You Put it in Your Mouth.” The ad was a public service announcement — about the dangers of ingesting unidentified objects — that was delivered in song form by two shrill-voiced puppets. This one is harmless, but it’s funny to think that, at some point in recent Canadian history, a cabal of shadowy ad execs felt it was necessary.

 

Perhaps the defining feature of CCA’s work was how often it missed the mark. Take the “House Hippo” spot, for example. The ad featured a Hinterland Who’s Who-style profile of a species of miniature hippo that supposedly subsisted on chips and peanut butter and created nests made from old mittens.


 

The ad was meant to promote media literacy and make children question what they saw on TV, but instead, it led many impressionable youths to believe in the existence of actual domestic hippos.

Continuing these misguided attempts in media literacy was the “Smart as You” ad in which a fast-talking CGI television directly addresses the viewer, lamenting its inability to read books or go outside. If anything, the colourful visuals and frenetic pacing probably kept Canadian kids mindlessly glued to the TV for an extra minute or two.


 

Of course, accidentally promoting casual misinformation and mindless television consumption doesn’t compare at all to the relentlessly dark anti-drug PSAs produced by the organization. When it came to drugs, CCA had a real mean streak. A perfect example of this is the “Hip Choice” ad, which drew from darker elements of Canadian pop culture — think David Cronenberg rather than Mr. Dressup.

The ad features a human-sized drug dealer puppet, with handfuls of pills and syringes, who is trying to sell drugs to kids. At the last moment of the ad, the dealer removes his shades to reveal a pair of horribly scarred reptilian eyes. As a psychological horror short, it’s brilliant, but as a children’s commercial, not so much.


 

It’s possible that many of these ads were tonal misfires because they were attempts to educate and empower youth made by out-of-touch ad people who operated in terms of visual effects and psychological manipulation. While the CCA may have set out to save the children, judging by their output, they just as easily could have ended up corrupting them.

Regardless of the efficacy of the ads, CCA managed to provide a generation of young Canadian television enthusiasts with tons of memorable content to look back on nostalgically.

Cole Chretien

Graphic: Lesia Karalash / Graphics Editor