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Culture

Esuvee: The Public Service Announcement's Latest, Fully-CGI-Loaded Vehicle

Bill Gibron

Gone are the Public Service Announcement's anti-smoking principles of the '60s and '70s, the Mothers Against Drunk Driving scare tactics of the '80s. Esuvee is the young man's souped-up McGruff. While the Esuvee animation looks better than the cartoon dog, relying on the latest technology to create a kind of Jurassic Park of driving precautions, it doesn't really say very much of merit.

The images are indelible: a single egg sizzling on a red hot iron skillet; a single tear streaming down the cheek of a stoic Native American, his feet covered in trash and litter; a flaming tree reflected in the sad eyes of a gallant grizzly bear, his voice intoning a single sentiment - "Only you . . . ". Though they no longer have the kind of informational impact that they once carried, the Public Service Announcement (PSA) is still one of the most potent forms of public safety jingoism utilized by both government and private organizations. Over the course of their tenure as the non-commercial commercial, the PSA has taken on subjects as diverse as environmental protection, patriotism, drunk driving and minority education.

Recently, the PSA has tried to stay focused on standard social ills such as smoking (the often clever ads for truth, which use confrontational tactics and creative visual representations to highlight the obvious harms of cigarettes) while branching out into lower echelon hot button topics as bullying, television violence, and child endangerment. One of the more compelling, and confusing new ads to arrive comes from the Esuvee Safety Council, the simple name for a complicated coalition of all 50 states, plus three US jurisdictions. The result of an ongoing legal battle between Ford and the various attorney generals over allegations of deceptive trade practices relating to the sales and advertising of SUVs (which stands for Sport Utility Vehicle), the Detroit demagogue ponied up $27 million to fund an ad campaign to promote vehicular responsibility.

They've done so with a combination website and commercial push that twists the soccer mom's favorite vehicle model into the name of a surreal buffalo type monster that charges across the American roadway system in powerful packs of wild and wooly behemoths. Hoping to show that an SUV is not a toy, or not some manner of sports car on steroids, the purpose behind the pitch is to teach young male drivers (for some insular reason, the focus of the concern) about the proper way to operate one of these oversized vehicles.

The ads themselves are quite memorable. We visit the National Esuvee Championship, where cocksure boys are shown preparing to ride their burly beasts into a rodeo style setting. As an older, father figure speaks from the sidelines, we see individual competitors saddle up, take off, and navigate their creatures through a combination of barrel racing and bronco busting. Some are successful. Others manage to "roll" their beasts and, while not hurt, face the disappointment and the groans of the crowd. The entire time, our wise narrator intones the virtues of safety and skill, arguing that an Esuvee is not a gentle being, but a potentially destructive force just waiting to be unleashed. Ending on the image of a competitor in mid-motion, a hip-hop like catchphrase, "How Do You Ride?", adds the final emphatic point to the argument.

It's quite a change of pace from the standard PSA. For those of us who grew up with television, these 30-second sermons were a regular feature of our four network reality. Established as part of the Allied effort in the early '40s, the War Advertising Council used a kind of PSA precursor to preach the party line, reminding the nation that "loose lips sink ships", and the value and necessity of buying bonds. This was all by mutual agreement with the radio broadcasters, as they had a desire to do their part for democracy and liberty by providing free ad airtime. After WWII, the newly renamed National Advertising Council continued the good fight, championing other important causes (they created the forest fire fighting Smokey Bear) as well as supporting charities and non-profit organizations looking to promote certain physical or social agendas. And with the emergence of the new medium of television, the PSA appeared like a salient, successful use of this new means of mass communication.

But if you look more closely, you can see that the PSA actually has far deeper roots. It is possible to trace its foundational elements and ideas to a far more sinister starting point. Around the 1900s, with immigration from Europe at an all time high, and a large influx of blacks from Southern states to the big cities, the social climate of America was rapidly changing. For the first time, the needs of the lower classes were outdistancing the desires of the affluent, and the government was at a loss for a proper response. As with any change in the makeup of a country, the newly arrived residents brought with them a host of objective and subjective concerns, testing both the tolerance of the population and the services of an already strapped infrastructure.

Hoping to sway opinion both for and against these unwanted émigrés, some of the earliest examples of PSAs in the form of unadulterated exploitative motion pictures began making the road show rounds throughout America. Using the newfangled form of entertainment � film � as a means of promoting such opposing ideals as progressivism (a vague social movement which both supported and spurned new immigrants) and eugenics (the bigoted belief based in the inferiority of the minority races), activists and agitators competed for the mindset of the nation by applying the standard set of scare tactics. Most of these movies were horribly melodramatic and inflammatory, arguing that an outside force or "other" was responsible for such increasing problems as venereal disease, substance abuse and slum/ghetto poverty. In reality, the "other" argued over was the lower classes; people who were not privy to the advantages and advocacy of the emerging media.

While such scandalous notions are no longer a part of the PSA ideal � you won't be seeing diseased genitals or horrid ethnic stereotypes in the modern missive � there is still a question as to whether or not such an infrequent, often exceptionally subtle style of message, actually works. For most of the positions taken and problems addressed, there is an "in one ear and out the other" resonance with the PSAs' possible audience. Many find these usually unimaginative ads intrusive or downright laughable, as unnecessary to a technologically advanced civilization as the station identification or the testing of the emergency broadcast system. Back at the turn of the last century, the hygiene horror story or the immoral cautionary tale fueled race baiting, beatings, and the institution of incredibly arcane and unconstitutional laws. At the turn of this century, however, statements urging kids to stay in school, or to just say "NO" to individual vices apparently sway no one.

Sometimes, PSAs can and do have an impact. In the late 1960s, the tobacco industry lost an important appeal of the FCC mandate known as the "Fairness Doctrine" (a policy which stated that all controversial issues be given fair and balanced treatment). As a result, anti-smoking advocates bombarded the airwaves. Eventually, companies like RJ Reynolds and Phillip Morris discovered that, for every three cigarette ads they aired, there was one negative PSA offered. And the actual smoking rate declined for the first time in decades. Proving that they would rather switch than fight, the tobacco industry withdrew all cigarette advertising from the airwaves in 1971, a clear victory for PSA advocacy. Additionally, most campaigns dealing with emergent healthcare issues, like cancer or other chronic maladies, have seen an increase in awareness and a desire on the part of the audience to pay attention to and address these concerns.

Yet such victories are rare in the world of the public service announcement. As broadcasters battle for more and more ad revenue, and as the deregulation of the '80s makes finding a place amongst the plethora of voices and images on the air (or cable, or satellite) vying for the consideration of the masses more and more difficult, the bar for recognition has been raised substantially. The harder it is to get your message or concern across, the harder it is to be heard. As a result, the tactics the modern PSA takes have also become equally extreme. The campaign run by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, playing to the most manipulative and tragic aspects of the issue � i.e., the horrible, unwarranted deaths of the innocent victims � has provided an incentive for both judges and state legislatures to increase the penalties and lower the acceptability of this one time quasi-'tolerable' crime. But this is the exception, not the norm. For every effective approach, there are literally hundreds that become fodder for spoofs, stand up comedy, or are just ignored completely.

The Esuvee ads do indeed have such a shaky sense of purpose, as well as a much more muddled means of getting its almost completely insular message across. While it looks great, relying on the latest technology to create a kind of Jurassic Park of driving precautions, it doesn't really say very much of merit. Instead of preaching to those who need to hear such a sermon, the PSA seems to merely cement what is already known about SUV accidents. Yet by refashioning the big and blocky SUV into a massive, yet merely misunderstood road ogre with dead, blank headlight eyes, it squarely places the onus for their danger on how they are operated. The PSA uses those belligerent boys who dare to load up and take them for a spin as the sole scapegoat for the SUV's poor safety record. Never once is the vehicle's design questioned (Ford is footing the bill, remember), nor is the mentality of providing a neophyte driver (the ad demographic is aimed at the pre and post college age male): these keys to such an unstable craft are never broached.

Indeed, such subjects seem to be outside the scope of the Esuvee's advertising ideal. Just like the famous "frying egg as your brain" mentality of those mid-80s anti-drug ads, this is buzzword bravado for the sake of a far more substantial issue. It's all about the visual with these ads, the Matrix-like magic of some incredibly inventive CGI creatures come to life. The "why" regarding the need for such an ad is skirted while the magnificent image of Esuvee herds, headlights blazing, harkens back to the pioneer spirit of the old West. Even the obvious concern over the SUVs' decidedly poor gas mileage is made light of, as the computerized monster stops for a "drink" at a local service station, lapping up octane with a happy, almost orgasmic gluttonous grin on its face.

Clearly, we are not meant to take these visuals literally. They are ironic, used to suggest the ridiculous extremes of land cruiser culture. But the iconography doesn't match the memorandum, and by the end of the well-made message, we are no more informed or aware than we were before. The contradictory conceits fly by fast and furious. If the rash of accidents, injuries, and fatalities are the direct result of the vehicles themselves, they are never pictured as overtly menacing or evil. Indeed, Esuvees are the misconstrued monsters, needing a gentle hand to guide them in the proper transportation manner. And if it's the kids who climb behind the wheel who are the real reason behind all the automotive atrocities, there is no sign of such a sinister intent here. Indeed, as with most of the modern social philosophy, blame has been replaced by underdeveloped self-expression, turning an argument against the reckless use of such vehicles into the slightest of suggestions regarding your occasionally imprudent behavior. In 2005, such solid pronouncements as "Unsafe at Any Speed" have been replaced by the kind of homespun cornpone concern to keep it safe, with an honest belief that both statements say the exact same thing.

The Esuvee ads, though, are the classic case of style over substance, or in this arena, F/X over effectiveness. It refuses to point fingers at either the automotive industry for building such unstable vehicles or parents for allowing their barely capable kids to drive such supposed death traps. Instead, we are sent into an awkward parallel universe, a Hollywood blockbuster otherworld where car-like creatures snort and growl with false ferocity as they are put through their contest paces. If the motive is merely to get our attention, then the Esuvee clearly does this. But there is so much more to the scope of this PSA's parameters that is never even hinted at in the ad. According to the Esuvee website, this is not just a campaign of awareness. There is a desire to turn the Esuvee into a universal mascot, a kind of instantly identifiable symbol of safe SUV operation and all that goes with it (including a list of additional dos and don'ts like checking your tire pressure, avoiding vehicle overloading, and always wearing seat belts).

Yet all we get are illusions and optics, a deceptive desire to get the attention of the fledgling fanboy by appealing to his Pavlovian response to cool. While it's not dissimilar to finding a celebrity who will speak for your cause, the notion that such strategic ideals as highway safety can be instilled through a $27 million dollar dog and pony show is unrealistic. Without specifically addressing the problem � sorry, "rollover" is not the most threatening of terms � or getting beneath the ballyhoo to argue the real, rational reasons for SUV accidents, all we have is another McGruff. As a crime dog, his voice and trenchcoated mannerisms are well known to the wee ones. As an advocate rallying against juvenile crime, he's about as effective as a stern lecture from a doddering maiden aunt.

This is, apparently, the post-millennial PSA: the cross marketed and multi-platformed ideal that never really gets to the heart of the issue, but only sells you on another means of information manipulation. In order to get to the real meat of the problem, you have to visit the website, download the videogame, take the online pledge, attend the personal appearance of the memorable mascot, and connect the dots in the accompanying activity book. Instead of finding a more effective means of contact to a growingly disconnected public, we substitute bells and whistles and moviemaking enchantment just to hopefully break through the fog of information overload.

Still, there will be those who marvel at these massive brutes, buffalo-like stance shifting and shuffling in realistic bitmap rendering and believe that, somehow, the significance is crystal clear. After all, who needs the antics of the obvious when you can apply a more restrained approach toward arguing your case? The truth, however, is that lost amongst the visual splendor is the reason for the ad in the first place. The service such public announcements are supposed to be supplying is both warning and advice. Esuvee does very little of either, and explains it away as a matter of modern reality: the old ways just don't work anymore. Yet it is hard to fathom how the Esuvee will succeed in doing anything other than promoting its own line of cuddly, car-like action figures. Gone are the principles of the '60s and '70s, the scare tactics of the '80s, or the dictatorial dogma of the war years. While no one wants a return to the hatemongering misapplication of PSAs that resulted at the turn of the century, why does the advent of the next 100 years require such a mild mannerism? One can only imagine that somewhere, in the PSA afterlife, our noble Native American is still crying. Except now, it's not over the needless destruction of his beloved country: it's for the lack of depth applied to these once substantive public sentinels.

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