PSAs That Actually Work and Don't Beat You Over the Head

Campbell-Ewald Delivers a Simple, Non-Syrupy Message About Being a Good Dad

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So AdReview was minding its own business Friday morning when a reporter called to inquire about a commercial that appeared on ESPN. It was for the website AshleyMadison.com, which is a sort of Match.com for extramarital trysts. The tagline: "Life is short. Have an affair."

This was a discouraging way to begin a day.

We couldn't exactly summon moral outrage; we're not the sort to spew about "sin." We couldn't disguise our exasperation, however, about a perfectly effective commercial for a thoroughly disgraceful product. And we wondered aloud about advertising's role in, to use the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan's term, "defining deviancy down."

The reporter asked what reporters always ask: Does advertising affect the society or reflect it? The nominal answer is it does mostly the latter. But by showing up on a major cable network, an online adultery service also becomes by some degree more normal. Shame on ESPN for running it, but, more to the point, what does this say about us all? And, more specifically, has advertising no higher calling?

Well, thankfully, the answer is, at least sometimes, yes. From Campbell-Ewald comes a pro bono campaign that defines parental responsibility down, to the simple act of spending time with the kids. The sponsor is the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The 30-second PSAs are adorable.

In one, we see a 30-something, slightly chubby guy going through some sort of urban warfare exercise, hugging a wall with his back, assault weapon in hand, as he prepares to turn a corner. Only he isn't in Fallujah, he's in his backyard -- and the weapon is a Super Soaker. We come to discover he's in a battle with his 6-year-old child, who materializes from nowhere and blasts him.

The second spot is even cuter. It opens with an elderly grandma, sitting in the parlor doing needlepoint, as she hears odd sounds below. It's her son, about 35 years old, outside, doing what sounds like a cheerleading cheer. She looks outside and, yep, it's him, swinging his hips and clapping his hands. Pull back to reveal: He's practicing with his sixth-grader.

"The smallest moments can have the biggest impact on a child's life," the onscreen super says. "Take time to be a dad today."

Granted, the message "Play with your children" may seem a bit on the obvious side, along the lines of "Eating? Don't forget to chew." But anybody who's ever listened to Harry Chapin sing "Cats in the Cradle" knows that even dads in stable, two-parent households -- never mind the off-premises fathers most in HSS's sights -- can get so caught up in work, recreation, home repair or whatever that the simple joy of goofing around with the kids somehow gets lost in the shuffle.

(Not in the AdReview household, we are happy to report. Here it is work and Mrs. AdReview that get short shrift, while we play Candyland, "Brainmonster" and "Super Squirrel" -- a proprietary airborne-first-grader game -- as the rest of our life goes to seed.)

What's lovely about these spots is what they aren't. They don't wag a finger in your face or sicken you with treacle in the Hallmark-card vein. It's just dads getting down to business with the offspring and having fun doing it. Even Chapin's song, with all the zillions of guilty twinges it has produced for 30 years, relies on pathos and exaggeration to make its point. The first time the dad character promises, "We'll have a good time then, son. We'll have a good time then," you just know he's going to be a dick.

No such overkill required here. In fact, the tagline could be even simpler: "Life is short. Play Candyland."
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