They were made in a different time and they wreak of paranoia, but given today’s political and social climate, these ads feel oddly poignant and timely. The second ad in particular features some really amazing, seemingly precognitive, parallels to what’s going on with the whole NSA surveillance debacle.
As I worked my way through these shorts, I found myself mesmerized, freaked out, bewildered and amazed. You should definitely give them a look.
In 1974, director Godfrey Reggio produced a series of public service announcements for the New Mexico Civil Liberties Union that were two parts “art house” and one part “makes u think.” The ads are weird, for sure. But they’re an interesting peek into the techno-reactionary fears of a country grappling with Watergate, the Vietnam War, and the Future Shock ’70s.
The ads are haunting, but pretty abstract within the context of mainstream TV for the time. In one ad we see children playing Red Rover and then mugshots of the kids. Is the government going to make Red Rover illegal? Probably, I guess.
In another, we see a mouse running through a maze with only one circular path. This strange footage is interrupted by a brief shot of a highway with what we might assume are commuters. Get it? Commuting to work makes you a mindless drone in an world controlled by The Man™! Makes you think! Or something. I suppose?
One of the ads is a bit more blunt:
“As the first generation of a technological society, we have been acted upon by forces of such power that few if any of us can understand.
Extensive information gathering on every American. Human experiments with drugs and psycho-surgery. Electronic surveillance. The era of the computer. Invasion of privacy. Growing government and corporate power over our lives. A people plagued by dehumanization, loneliness, and violence.
Dramatic? Perhaps. But we are losing control of our technology and our lives. Not so long ago, people in a similar situation did not awaken to the forces around them. Are we so unwise as to do the same?”
The first generation of a technological society? Depends on what you mean by technological. But yes, again, I guess we get your point.
Another ad just has a shot of a child holding a ball with a creepy whispering voice-over:
“Behavior control. Mood changing drugs. LEAA. Paranoia. Enemy lists. Wiretaps. Death packs. Dossiers. Medical records. Social security number. Credit record. National security.”
Reggio produced the PSAs in conjunction with The New Mexico Civil Liberties Union and his own non-profit media studies organization called the Institute for Regional Education. The latter organization would dissolve in the late 1970s and Reggio spent the remaining money from the non-profit’s coffers to produce his first feature film, 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that ours was not the first generation to worry about government surveillance. And what little chatter I’ve seen about these PSAs acts as if they somehow predicted an era that nobody saw coming. “Did they have a time machine?” wonders one YouTube commenter.
But c’mon, guys. For all the concern we have [had?] about surveillance in a post-Snowden world, Americans of the late 1960s and 70s were arguably much more wary of the surveillance state. And unlike today’s slacktivists, they actually did something about it! Like producing bizarre art films for TV to raise awareness that technology was going to destroy us all!