There’s a genre of non-fiction filmmaking (if you can call it that) which has a greater impact on the national psyche than any other in the doc world. I’m talking PSAs: public service announcements. OK, they’re not really docs, but they come close. I got to thinking about them recently, partly because of the most prevalent ad: the anti-smoking ones brought to us by Truth. They creep me out. I’m not a smoker, and I agree with the message, but they just creep me out. In a bad way.

It’s not that the ads aren’t well made. In fact, they use the tons of money won from Big Tobacco by those class action lawsuits; these shorts are clever, and have high-production values. I just dislike their cultish, nebulous branding. The ads seem to spawn from some outer space cult. In a way, it reminds me of the frying eggs in the “This is your brain on drugs” campaign. Although that campaign always felt hand delivered by Nancy Reagan, it had the same annoying cleverness and smugness of the Truth campaign.

These Truth guys, but the way, are a creation of the American Legacy Foundation, an anti-smoking organization, whatever that means. Maybe they speak to the youth of today — which is their target audience — but not to me.

I guess I’m old school. I like my PSAs with narrative arcs and cheesy acting. I checked out some PSAs from my youth and got all choked up watching the United Negro College Fund’s “Because a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” There’s also that cute anti-smoking one featuring C-3PO and R2-D2. But the greatest PSA of all time has to be “Keep America Clean” with Iron Eyes Cody. I defy anyone to say that it doesn’t move them — at least a bit: iconic imagery of the American Indian juxtaposed with pollution, heightened by a forceful narrator and climactic music. Awesome.

What do you think about today’s PSAs? And if you, or someone you know, make those Truth spots, please step up and tell us what planet you’re from.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen