Speaking from experience: being a Canadian kid from the 90s was a little sad. Unlike our American counterparts, there very few Canadian-made cultural products that weren't totally niche or short-lived. We also got Vanilla Coke way too late, our favourite pop stars and rappers were all from down south, and the 6ix hadn't yet made Toronto an acceptable place to live yet.
But nostalgia is a powerful drug, one strong enough to make Canadian kids' TV into something memorable.ReBoot, Uh Oh!, Breaker High, Are You Afraid of the Dark?, Animorphs, Franklin. Truly, a list of Canadian TV classics from that period could go on endlessly, if it didn't actually end right there. The programming wasn't always the best produced or the most interesting or any good, but one thing you could count was that it had the right level of cheesiness to make it homey and it was on TV. Networks like YTV championed these shows beside back-to-back marathons of foreign-produced anime like Dragon Ball Z and Inuyasha, and if you ask anybody born during that time, they'll tell you just how lit the 6 PM time slot was.
What was Canadian however, was what was embedded between these shows: commercials. In particular, there were a series of ads that have reached legendary status among many Canadian youth. Produced by a non-profit called Companies Committed to Kids (formerly Concerned Children's Advertisers), PSAs like "Jake the House Hippo", "Don't Put it in Your Mouth", and "What's Your Thing?" were meant to teach kids about issues like drug abuse, gender equality, and not believing everything you see on TV.
The company partnered with Health Canada and other NGOs to make informative ads, but not all of them really landed like they're producers intended. Despite the house hippo PSA telling me not to, I believed what I saw in the commercials so much that I was convinced my hairless guinea pig was actually a domestic hippo until he died. I also ended up doing a whole lot of drugs before rediscovering their anti-drug ads on YouTube recently, so there's that.
If there's one thing I can say with confidence about these ads, it's that everybody around my age knows them. On YouTube, reposts of the ads have racked up millions of views and have comment sections swimming with 90s kids gushing with nostalgia. Seeing them again nowadays lit a fire inside me—I had to do some digging. I reached out to Bev Deev, director of CCK, to find out if the company had any idea what they were doing—I had assumed drugs—when they created these masterpieces.
VICE: These ads had a profound impact on my generation. It's our little piece of Canadian nostalgia. Did you guys have any idea these would blow up as much as they did?
Bev Deev: Not at all! At that particular time, the house hippo, for example, was about media literacy. But today, media literacy is mandatory in today's curriculum. In the case with most of our spots, we were very progressive and ahead of the rest of the people in this space. We were doing gender differences with "We Are Girls" and "What's Your Thing" long before we were talking about gender differences and feminism so openly. We try to approach these topics in a way that's effective and engaging. They stuck with you clearly!
How do these ideas even come about? Some of the concepts were pretty off-beat.
We have a fantastic network of marketers, some of the best minds in the industry. The beauty of our spots is that they're timeless. Our bullying trilogy, those are still relevant today. We get there by checking with our issue experts about where ideas are going and what is being untouched, and tap into that in a creative way.
So there was a really popular ad you guys did called Don't Put it in Your Mouth. It's pretty weird—a lot of jokes about in the comment section on YouTube. Can you tell me about that one?
Oh yeah, Don't Put It in Your Mouth, the Muppet one? I'm embarrassed to say. I honestly can't even speak to that one because that's not something that relates to what we do now. We look toward PSAs that messages are still relevant today-- that have evolved with the times. That one didn't. The bullying spots, for example, those hasn't changed. Telling somebody to just walk away from a bully? That's something that can still be used by today's youth.
Some of your ads in the past focused on drug use and deterring kids from smoking pot and such. Has that changed now that, almost 20 years later, now that we're looking at pot legalization being a real thing?
Substance abuse isn't something that's in our wheelhouse anymore because, as you said, our outlook has shifted. We're looking at healthy active living, bullying, media literacy, and mental wellness. Those are the four issue buckets that we deal so youth can get a better ground-up approach.
Do you feel that, when looking back on any of that commercials, that you guys got wrong or that aren't up to today's progress?
Well, the one thing that we've always done right is that research guides us. Research guides our strategy and the due diligence we undertake prior to producing a PSA has really been the secret to their effectiveness. Sometimes the message wins out, but sometimes it's the charm. The house hippo was popular because it's a cute little hippo and kind of made people think about whether it was actually real or not. It was before the Internet, so you couldn't look it up, and you get the punchline at the end of the commercial about not believing everything you see [on TV].
Speaking of TV: most kids use the Internet now and are probably bombarded by way more catchy ads than before. Internet memes and that jazz. Do you think your new ads stick out as much?
One of things we're working on is our reach. Our ads are geared towards kids ages 6-12, so TV is still a prime spot for a lot of them, and we do have programs on family-friend YouTube channels and such.
Right. I saw these commercials on YTV, in between my favourite cartoons.
Totally. You would have saw the after-school special, Health Rock? Do you remember that?
Oh yeah, that was a big one in class. Did you have a favourite commercial?
I did have a favourite commercial! Because I'm a mother of two girls, I loved "We Are Girls," because it speaks to the gender differences and kind of gives girls that confidence to be a businessperson, to be a sports player, to be successful. How about you? The house hippo?
That one stuck with me mostly because me and the hippo share the same name, but I really did like the Smart as You commercial and The Trap.
Wow, you really know these. I'm honestly so impressed. I'm going to have to keep you in mind if we do any feedback on some of our past work.
How do you guys feel about these commercials going viral now?
I can't speak for our founders, but I will tell you that, as part of our 25th anniversary, they were all there and they are so proud of all the [work we've done.] Did we have any idea? Probably not. But I can tell you that they're super happy to see it's stuck around and everything we're doing going forward.
Follow Jake Kivanc on Twitter.