Some concepts should be fundamental enough to be understood and internalized beyond any need for further amplification. You'd think that freedom, and the specific civil liberties that constitute it, would be one. What a sorry state of affairs when it falls to a series of 30-second spots to explain to Americans what should not need explaining.
Yet here we are-with American liberty being challenged by terrorism from without, and by the response to terrorism from within-and it suddenly becomes evident that civics class never took, that for many Americans "freedom" is a platitude to be mouthed and the Bill of Rights is an answer to a quiz question, please don't ask which one. So here comes the Ad Council with a public service campaign like a Stanley Kaplan SAT brush-up, reminding the most democratic nation on earth, oh, yeah, what democracy means.
What it means to be able to worship as you please. What it means to be able to read whatever you wish. What it means to be able to criticize the government, in public and in private. What it means to be protected from the police.
It's not just that we take these freedoms for granted. Many Americans are unclear as to their significance, leaving it to the Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires people to bring the message home.
For the most part, the Ad Council and its volunteer agencies do so quite well.
The best are from DeVito/Verdi, New York, which presents a pair of vignettes that take mundane scenes and give them a chilling "Twilight Zone" twist. One takes place in a library, where a young man inquires about certain books, only to be told by a grim librarian that the material is no longer in circulation. Then she asks his name. When he tries to flee, he is stopped by government snoops. A second spot shows a church service breaking up, whereupon the pastor warns his congregants to be careful going home. Then, with an eye out for police, they crawl out of the cellar and melt into the night.
"Freedom," the onscreen super says. "Appreciate it. Cherish it. Protect It."
Another spot from DDB Worldwide, Chicago, shows a young motorist being stopped for no apparent reason by the cops, who search his car without a warrant and find dangerous contraband: newspapers. He's hauled off. Then there are three from Lowe, New York, which follow dubious-or, at least, vague-logic to connect freedom and supermarket choice, freedom and medical advancements, freedom and, uh, even more freedom. Pretty lame, truth be told.
There's also a fourth one from Devito/Verdi that doesn't so much deal with freedom as rally the home-front troops in defense of all we hold dear. It shows a street of Bayonne row houses before 9/11 and after. "Terrorists tried to change America forever," the voice-over says, as the "after" shot reveals Old Glory waving from every house. "Well, they succeeded." The spot is poignant and inspiring enough, but too busy reveling in our national resolve for it to communicate what those flags really mean, what is truly at stake.
And so much is at stake. The obvious threat is that terrorists want us to cower. They want to exploit our very freedoms in order to deprive us of them. The less obvious threat, and the bitter irony of this campaign, is that they are dramatically succeeding. Already, the FBI and other agencies have been unleashed to infiltrate religious groups. Already the rules of search and seizure have been loosened. Already, by order of the government, "sensitive" materials have been taken from public libraries, in addition to computers and hard drives, so that the FBI can see who has been using them, and for what. Already, the president's spokesman has warned critics of the government to "be careful of what they say."
There are no Campaign for Freedom spots about racial profiling or arrest without due process, but those "Twilight Zone" episodes are here, as well, without much fuss from the resolute flag wavers. Post-9/11 polls reveal that Americans are willing to surrender some civil liberties (read, "other people's civil liberties") in exchange for security. If this campaign works half as well as Smokey Bear, eventually it might dawn that our strength and security lie in those essential liberties.
We can appreciate freedom. We can cherish it. But we cannot give it up and protect it at the same time.