The 15 Creepiest PSAs Ever Made
Content warning: Disturbing depictions of alcohol/drug abuse, sexual abuse, and violence ahead.
There's plenty of ways to address public concerns about personal safety, drugs, child abuse, and risky behavior. You can teach it in the classroom. You can build public health centers. You can allocate money to non-profit organizations. Or, you can take to the airwaves, and do your best to scare the bejesus out of people.
A well-made PSA is like a miniature horror film. It opens with a deceptively normal setting. But then, there's an intrusive plot element, followed by a grotesque visual. And usually, the PSA concludes with a last-minute twist. Sometimes, public service announcements are inadvertently hilarious. But done properly, they linger in people's minds.
Here are the 15 creepiest public service announcements ever made. These are not PSAs of the "This is your brain on drugs" or the "I learned it from you!" variety. Those are cute by comparison. These are the stuff of nightmares. And if you feel unsettled, that's precisely the point.
And if you remember any other PSAs from your childhood that kept you up at night, let us know in the comments.
15. A Smokey Surprise
It's not clear how creepy this 1973 Ad Council PSA was originally intended to be. But the whole thing feels wrong. It was unsettling enough that Joanna Cassidy was purring sexily about fire safety. But when Smokey the Bear reveals that he's wearing a Joanna Cassidy costume and gives a baritone chuckle? It reaches another level of disturbing.
14. What About Her?
The Montana Meth Project released a wave of visceral, disturbing PSAs in the early '00s, designed to combat the growing meth epidemic in the state. And although critics are split on the PSAs' overall effectiveness, they spread to several other states on the strength of their gut impact. This particular one, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel, The Revenant), gets its point across with heavy implications of heinous acts.
13. And This Is What I Said
Here's one more from the Montana Meth Project. It's directed by cinematographer Wally Pfister (Memento, The Dark Knight, Inception), and it takes an interesting turn. Rather than focusing on the pain and suffering of the addicts, it turns a critical eye on the bystanders around them. The Montana Meth Project ads could fill an entire list by themselves; if you want to see more--a whole bunch of them are directed by Darren Arrofonsky--you can check out this archive.
12. Living With It
Here's a disturbing ad from the UK road safety group Think! It challenges its audience to put themselves in the shoes of the driver instead of the victim. The most disturbing shots are the out-of-focus ones. No matter what this man does for the rest of his life, his deeds will continue to haunt him, even from afar.
11. The Burden
Casa do Menor is a Christian-based organization that aids neglected and abused children in Brazil. Their ad shines a light on the burden that many traumatized children carry, often unbeknownst to the people around them. It's extremely graphic, heartbreaking, and above all, devastatingly effective.
10. What Do You Hear?
This radio ad, from German child abuse prevention organization Hansel and Gretel, is the worst bait-and-switch imaginable. It encourages the listener's participation and complicity, and then it drops what might be most disturbing possible question into the mix. It'll make you disgusted and angry, all at the same time.
Finnish organization Fragile Childhood focuses its effort on parental alcohol abuse. This ad, released in 2012, subverts beloved childhood icons like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to show the frightening effect that an alcoholic parent can have on his or her children. The child actors deserve praise for their non-verbal emotiveness, especially the little boy in the car seat at the very end.
8. Snorting Your Brain
If you can't handle the sight of blood, you might want to give this ad a hard pass. This PSA has a Requiem for a Dream feel to it--appropriate, since that film is a massive anti-drug PSA itself. It was produced by The New Zealand Society on Alcohol and Drug Dependence (NSAD), and what it lacks in psychological horror, it makes up for by being gross.
7. Were You Paying Attention?
The Sandy Hook shooting was one of the most tragic school massacres in American history. Twenty elementary school children and six adults lost their lives. And an organization founded by the survivors' families, Sandy Hook Promise, released this video, encouraging the public to be aware of red flags and warning signs. It incriminates the viewer for his or her complacency, making its message even more disturbing and effective.
6. The Diving Board
Here's a classic 1989 PSA from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. There's no bells and whistles, and no high concept. It's just a girl, a diving board, and the empty pool that she's diving into, headfirst. Sometimes, the bluntest metaphors are the most effective ones.
5. The Faster You Go
This PSA, which cautions against speeding, employs an old-as-time film trick: It freezes the movie moments before the terrible collision. But somehow, it works; the voiceover has something to do with it. This is just one line of the script: "If he'd stopped here, the last thing Sally will ever hear wouldn't be the sound of her own neck breaking." This was one of many ads produced by the New Zealand Transport Agency, which clearly doesn't pull its punches.
4. David Lynch Directs a PSA
David Lynch is notorious for directing psychologically disturbing thrillers that leave his audience both confused and creeped out. A sense of rot and disease permeates his best work. So of course, he's an ideal candidate to direct a PSA. He may be the only filmmaker who could direct an ad about littering, and make it this unsettling.
3. A Terrible "Accident"
To promote employee safety, the Canadian Workplace Safety & Insurance Board created a slew of ads that depicted attractive people getting into horrible, disfiguring accidents. Or, if you believe the ads, there are no real "accidents"; there's just a neglectful management team that doesn't give a damn. The woman's screaming, which lasts long after the PSA fades to black, is particularly striking.
2. The Most Disgusting PSA In History
This PSA by German agency Dunkelziffer is one of the best ever made. It charts how sexual abuse and trauma can follow a person for his or her entire life. And it does so with the grossest visual metaphor possible: a skin-colored, hair-covered, phallic appendage that curls itself around its victim and makes a disgusting, slimy sound when it moves. Watch it, and take a shower immediately afterwards.
1. The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water
This PSA is one of the few ads that rises to the level of art. "Lonely Water" was produced by the British Central Office of Information, and it’s one of the most famous PSAs of all time. It was conceived to decrease the number of child drowning accidents in the UK.
And for at least a few young children who watched the ad in 1973, it was extremely effective. Writing for The Guardian, Alexis Petridis claims he was so terrified by the film, that he became afraid of water in addition to riverbanks. Better safe than sorry.