Barbara Lippert’s Critique

When I heard about another wave of PSAs coming from the White House, I feared we’d get more spots in the “Freedom” vein. That was the recent Ad Council effort dramatizing the loss of various liberties with scary scenarios about the seizure of books and newspapers, and government snoops patrolling religious meetings. Certainly, all of this post-9/11 donated ad work is a noble thing and comes with the best of intentions. But the problem with using advertising for these kinds of issues is that it is simultaneously too persuasive and too flimsy a medium for dealing with complex issues.

Flogging freedom as the latest cross-platform brand is troubling. And ads that pontificate about the need for freedom may trivialize the subject—or, worse, can be mistaken for just the kind of inflammatory propaganda they so earnestly warn against. I was relieved to see that this new USA Freedom Corps campaign, encouraging volunteerism, isn’t in the least heavy-handed or self-serving. Au contraire—the spots are surprisingly lighthearted and entertaining, and in the service of the joke, set up the charming, well-meaning celebs who appear in them to look like complete dolts.

In one spot, a line of “community volunteers” waits to be processed in an office. “I’d like to volunteer for the neighborhood emergency-response team to help the firefighters,” says a beaming Yankees base ball player, in uniform. “As you know, I was Fireman of the Year three times,” he says. When the woman behind the desk responds, “You’re Mariano Rivera,” he says, “Thank you,” lighting up the screen with a Tiger Woods-like grin, as if it’s the greatest compliment he’s ever received. That’s pretty funny. But this is where the cold water gets thrown.

“You’re not actually a fireman,” the woman says sternly from be neath her chained bifocals, explaining that it’s an award (sponsored by Rolaids—get it?—for the best relief pitcher, a guy who “puts out the fires”). Then we get a cut of the Dubya himself, tanned and energetic, saying, “When you help your neighbors, you help your nation. Everyone can do something.” He’s in each of the spots. There’s also a Spanish version with Rivera in which our Jorge W. Bush does his spiel in serviceable Spanish.

If anyone can play the self-effacing thing to the hilt, it’s Bob Dole. Over the years, the unapologetic Viagra endorser has become the house pet for the BBDO celebrity-repertory company. He gets better and better, and he’s great in this, too. He’s shown at the zoo, explaining to a bunch of school kids all the virtues of the elephant (strong, intelligent, ethical, etc.) as John Glenn appears with a similar group, saying the same thing about the donkey. It’s an obvious joke, but nicely done.

The ending is the real kick—Glenn has the kids entranced, telling them about the time he “orbited the Earth in a great big rocket ship,” while Dole mutters to a fence about his time in the Senate.

The spot with former Law & Order star Angie Harmon takes the “I’m not a doctor but I play one on TV” joke to its bizarro limits. She is terrific, standing in front of the same desk, with the same disbelieving woman, saying, “I’d like to volunteer for something in legal aid. I was a district attorney in New York and successfully prosecuted everything from extortion to murder.” Again, it’s left to the woman to assert the harsh reality. “That was a TV show,” she says. Angie proffers her SAG card as a badge. Later, she’s shown spelling out habeas corpus to a group of schoolkids.

What’s important here is that the phone number and Web site appear each time. Everybody can do something, and selling a specific way to help can never hurt. I went to the site, clicked on “children and youth,” entered my ZIP and got a listing of more than 700 volunteer jobs. I hope I have better luck with the kids than Bob Dole.