Scared Straight

By: Maia Zvetan

Horror is a perpetually evolving genre and is not limited to a specific medium. Every year there are new horror video games, novels, movies and even PSAs. Although the way the PSAs are presented don’t exactly conform to the same standard as the other mediums, they still present their audience with a monster, us. Everyone’s seen at least one of these types of PSAs: the sad and painful decent catalogued by the Meth Project PSAs, the horrifying (literally pulling out teeth and off pieces of skin) dangers of smoking PSAs, etc.

Recently the trend has been to shock audiences into taking preventative measures, not doing drugs or showing people the horrors of human rights violations like sex trafficking. With this type of PSA popping up left and right in recent years they’ve become more and more graphic in nature, denoting that previous, infomercial type approaches have not worked. The result is a PSA that presents its audience with not only horrifying visuals or connotations, but with the very real, very monstrous side effects. These regularly played PSAs ultimately serve as a confrontation between its audience and the harsh reality that they refuse to acknowledge.

My first real experience with one of these PSAs occurred when I was five, unfortunately for me I had managed to finagle my way around my mother’s strict TV rules and came face to face with a PSA that I still remember vividly fifteen years later. The rules of British advertisement, and consequently what can be broadcasted during daytime TV in the EU are very different, as a result I found myself watching a PSA about walking and texting. The PSA shows a teenage boy texting his potential love interest from across the street, stepping into oncoming traffic while looking at his phone. The next thing the audience, and five year old me, knows is that this kid is dead, and they show his death. His limp body goes flying, bouncing off of the truck’s windshield and landing, crumpled in the streets. This PSA stayed with me for fifteen years of my life and affected me to the point where I still can’t bring myself to look at my phone if I’m walking anywhere near the street. The question is: why did it affect me so much?

It can easily be argued that since I was five and that, and Jurassic Park, were the only two real horror experiences I’d had at that point it was bound to affect me. However, if that was true, then the aforementioned meth and smoking PSAs wouldn’t affect me nearly as much. The reality is: they do. Since there are so many more PSAs done in this style since 2000 (when that walking and texting PSA came out), the trend seems to indicate that I’m not the only one. All of the subjects of these PSAs are instances where people typically say something along the lines of “that will never happen to me”, when the reality is that it could and it has happened or is happening to someone. These PSAs are horrifying because they refuse to let us ignore the subject. It’s not sugar coated, sure it may be a little exaggerated but they work well. They scare the audience into caring more; at the very least they scare the audience into absorbing the information, regardless of how far down it may get buried. Horror, especially real life horror, stays with people because it is near impossible to separate yourself or the people you love from the situation presented. One advertisement in Ireland has been banned from regular rotation until 9 pm because of its effectiveness. Although this Irish speeding PSA seems like it is pandering heavily for shock value, it works. The PSA proves effective because the image of 31 kids dying in one fell swoop by something easily preventable is jarring and extremely alarming.

Ultimately the trend continues and escalates because of how effective they are. It seems very likely that these types of PSAs can be expected to stay because the horror genre is a very effective way of getting people to pay attention or to scare them into avoiding a behavior. Humans are creatures of habit, but the easiest way to get them to stop doing something is to make them afraid of it.

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One thought on “Scared Straight

  1. If anyone ever takes or has taken Psych 280, in the class we study how effective videos and PSAs with scare tactics are. Surprising enough, these fear tactics have more of a chance of back firing and causing some people to indulge in the behavior because “you can’t tell me what to do”. Or it brings to mind the exceptions to the rule and again, becomes a useless scare. I find it interesting when they are still used, but like you said, it does scare people.

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