These PSAs from the 80s Are More Relevant and Powerful Than Ever

In the 80s, Jim Mckay, Tom Gilroy, and Michael Stipe produced a series of powerful PSAs that turned the often stale, conservative-leaning genre of ads on its head.
June 9, 2016, 4:47pm

In the late 1980s, filmmakers Jim McKay and Tom Gilroy and R.E.M. frontman, Michael Stipe, produced a series of public service announcements (PSAs) called Direct Effect. The spots were carried on networks like MTV and VH1 in their early days, beaming subversive conversations around race, organic farming, and women's rights into countless homes across the US.

At the time, the only other organizations making PSA content on the national scale were the Ad Council and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. Their politics and messaging were generally conservative, or centrist at best. Slogans such as "Just Say No to Drugs" and "Take Bite Out of Crime" were weapons in an aggressive cultural arsenal; Ronald Reagan would use them to further escalate the war on drugs. (The Ad Council was born in 1940s as a World War II propaganda agency.) Direct Effect offered a stark contrast. The project gave viewers a prescient blend of artistry and progressive social messaging, and it produced content that was not only ahead of its time but still relevant in 2016.

I have a personal connection that led me to the Direct Effect archives. For as long as I can remember, I've wanted to be a filmmaker. I grew up in the projects of Far Rockaway, Queens, surrounded by the surrealism of poverty. Regardless of how intelligent and capable they were, the adults around me found their existences dictated simply by the color of their skin. As a small child, I witnessed the drama of my family being pulled apart because of drug addiction. I bounced from home to home, shelter to shelter. Then, in the early 2000s, I met Jim Mckay and his wife, Hannah Weyer, a pair of independent filmmakers who immersed themselves in the lives of their subjects.

I distrusted most adults in my life, but I trusted Hannah and Jim with my turbulent story, and some of it was adapted into the HBO movie Angel Rodriguez . A lot of times, when I told people my situation, they would keep me at an arm's distance. But with Hannah and Jim, I was able to talk about my life and not be ashamed of being judged. My relationship with them outlasted our collaboration on Angel Rodriguez and continued through the years. Eventually, I would meet filmmaker Tom Gilroy and Michael Stipe.

I heard stories about their past, about Jim's music videos, Michael's touring, and an old nonprofit organization called Direct Impact. The public service announcements that Direct Impact produced were film rolls packed into storage for years. The accessibility of radical media always seems to be quite limited. Jim and the rest have since moved on from this project, but with the rise of online video, they decided to have old Direct Effect tapes were digitized for a new generation to see. I was tasked with uploading them all to YouTube and saw all of the old PSAs for the first time.

Unlike the Partnership for a Drug Free America—PSAs that feature Clint Eastwood, Pee Wee Herman, the Muppets, and many others—Direct Effect was not star-studded. The only recognizable faces was KRS-One rapping about world peace in one and a young Michael Imperioli, years before his role in The Sopranos fame, in another. Most were in grainy black-and-white 16mm. The artists they featured were unknowns at the time, though several have become cultural influencers, like editor Jane Pratt and filmmakers Jem Cohen and Jason Kliot.

At the close of each Direct Effect short, a phone number flashed onscreen—a direct line to the producers. If you had an idea you wanted to pitch, there was no middle man, no cultural or institutional gatekeeper. Instead of hiring the usual players to generate and execute the shorts, there was an open call for ideas. This allowed voices from the margins to assume creative control. Naturally, this made for some of the most innovative PSAs of all time.

I honestly wished I came across these Direct Effect PSAs as a child. The Ad Council and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America PSAs seem simplistic and paper-thin in comparison. "Just Say No to Drugs" as a moral absolute is laughable to anyone who has spent any time around drugs or felt the impact of addiction. And "Take a Bite of Crime" coincided with the rise of the prison industrial complex, the punitive system that separated me from my family, which led me along this path of creativity. When I landed an assistant editor position at VICELAND, I immediately pitched reintroducing Direct Effect to a new audience.

Jim and Michael never set out to compete with the Ad Council or any other agency that creates public service announcements, but to bring out ideas that everyone was thinking about, and present it creatively. Our VICELAND production team filmed and played back the PSAs off an old TV set in front of garbage trucks, supermarkets, the Wall Street bull sculpture, and many other places. This presentation was to show that the spirit and messages of Direct Effect still persist now.

That the Direct Effect PSAs seem relevant and fresh nearly 30 years after they aired points to their lasting power, and the fact that we're still grappling with the same issues facing the country in the 80s: war, racism, the environment, the chemicals in our food.

Hannah Weyer, Jim McKay, and Michael Stipe believed in me through all the tough and tiring times in my life. Rebooting Direct Effect is my way of thanking them for their bravery and vision. This is only the beginning. If you know of any independent public service announcements from the past that stuck out to you, hit VICELAND up.

Follow Messiah Rhodes on Twitter.