The best public service ads subtly coax viewers into living an experience—not passively watching one.
Consider Volkswagen’s famous “Eyes on the Road” anti-texting and driving spot from two years ago, directed at moviegoers in Hong Kong. In that case, seconds into watching a road trip from the point of view of the driver’s seat, everyone in the audience received a real text, broadcasted from within the theater, at the same time. As they checked their phones, the car on the screen crashed.
Now BBDO, a New York ad agency, has created an ad that also uses the predictability of human behavior and what the mind pays attention to in order to get a message across. It’s worth watching the spot now, before you continue reading.
At first, the story appears to be a saccharine tale of a redheaded boy who begins “talking” to a mysterious schoolmate via messages they both carve into a library table. We watch as he uses meaningful glances with girls around the school to try and discern who his anonymous conversation partner is. Just when this boy-meets-girl plot line is rather anti-climatically being resolved, however, a figure appears in the doorway of the school gym with what appears to be an automatic weapon. Students scream and scramble in terror, and the screen fades to black.
This is how we’re introduced to the ad’s real storyline, one that had been playing out in the background the whole time. We’re walked back through moments of the ad we just watched while focused lighting and tighter frames call our attention to a different teen, one we had taken for an extra. Now, the signs of distress become obvious. He was watching gun videos on his laptop in the library, for instance, and was later bullied in the hallway.
We also learn that the ad was produced for Sandy Hook Promise, a nonpartisan nonprofit founded by family members who lost loved ones during the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
The ad has gone viral, demonstrating its efficacy.
Something about it, though, doesn’t feel entirely earned. As consumers of film and television, we’re trained to pay attention to protagonists and the central action in a scene, so it’s pretty easy to trick us with a foreground love story. Besides, studies have shown that “inattentional blindness” affects most people and may have been an adaptive feature of human evolution. (Anyone who has tested themselves with the famous gorilla in the basketball game video will be familiar with the way cognitive tunneling works.) So, on one level, the ad can feel like an irritating, sensationalist cheat.
That said, the hints about the dangerous character lurking here do become increasingly blatant as the ad unfolds—even in the first run-through the narrative. Towards the end, we see him posing with a gun in a photo posted to a social media site. The main character scrolls through his feed and barely pauses on the gun selfie before returning to his search for a potential soulmate. By that time viewers are likely convinced that what they’re watching is either an ad for a gift-worthy or communication-related product, or a public service announcement about an issue tangentially related to teenage love. This is really about the plight of gay or trans teenagers, consent, or safe sex, we might think. The sight of a kid posing with a gun either doesn’t register at all, or is dismissed as unimportant.
And that laziness or complacency is exactly what the members of Sandy Hook Promise want viewers to recognize in themselves. According to it research, 80% of school shooters and 70% of individuals who commit suicide told someone about their plans, yet were never stopped. By pointing viewers to the group’s “Know the Signs” campaign—which warns that kids who carry out school shootings are often obsessed with guns, may also be victims of long-term bullying, and often brag about their plans—the ad is meant to help its audience feel aware and empowered to act, if they’re ever called to.
You might roll your eyes at the director’s manipulative device, but you won’t forget the message.