Saturday, February 6, 2016

1980s Mormon PSA Commercials – Saturday Morning Weirdness

Wouldn't Ya Like to Be a Mormon, Too?

In 1977, the Mormon “sex in chains” case dominated tabloid headlines throughout the UK. Its details could not be more salacious: in the town of Ewell, Surrey, pristine and wide-eyed Mormon missionary Kirk Anderson was abducted by buxom and comely (former Miss Wyoming World) Joyce McKinney. She and an accomplice drove to a cabin in Devon, where Kirk was chained to a bed and raped by Ms. McKinney over the course of a few days. The public was enthralled, not just by the sexy time details of a man being raped by a woman—not actually a crime in England at the time—but because of the sneak peek this case offered into the mysterious world of the reclusive Mormons. It was from this media event that many rumors about “Mormon underwear” stem. It was going to be tough to put a positive spin on this one.

The Mormons, or more specifically their “official” arm, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (hereinafter known as LDS), had already begun a publicity outreach campaign in an attempt to appeal to mainstream society, but after this incident it was clear that they would have to really change their public perception. And so in 1980s, they purchased time slots to enact a vigorous and long-running television commercial series, depicting LDS members as helpful, family-oriented, swell folks who just want what’s best for everyone. They ran in longform, a minute long, on Saturday mornings, in between Daffy Duck blowing his duckbill clean off his face and some cartoon robot probably eviscerating a space fish or something, and eventually even ran in shortened versions after school on weekdays. I can remember all of these commercials succinctly and thought they were all completely insane.

Insane like a fox, that is. Look at this commercial, a short opera starring some familiar-looking guy and Alfonso Ribiero. A multicultural gang of kids are playing on some urban street where police sirens can be heard. The kids are wearing bandanas and the bills of their baseball caps are flipped up. The adult lead looks vaguely Mediterranean. This is not what people would normally associate with Mormons, typically considered blond, blue-eyed, corn-fed "you betchas." This is almost like something you’d see on Sesame Street, except the song would be a lot more catchy.

This commercial I remember really well, both because the song is pretty catchy, and because of the hilaracist scene where the one kid does a Louie Armstrong impression. Again, nothing about the angel Moroni or Joseph Smith transcribing the Book of Mormon from a stack of inscribed golden plates, just some simple advice, put to children, that lying will make you feel bad. Who can’t get behind that? Do you support lying?! Get thee behind me, Satan! I also enjoy that you can see a split-second of the G.I. Joe cartoon bumper that preceded this commercial. See? Right in the middle of your jingoistic, military recruitment show of choice: a brief elementary school musical number.

This commercial I remember the best because it has the greatest, catchiest song, and because everything that happens is so ludicrously contrived. They could have, you know, thrown a party and invited a bunch of kids, filmed it and edited together scenes of actual mirth and merriment. But no, it has to be staged scenes of kids struggling to get a girl in a wheelchair down some stairs, two girls letting a white mouse run across their arms, a boy just putting on a spontaneous puppet show for the amusement of three little kids—literally nothing depicted in this PSA has ever actually happened in the course of human history. If they’d included a person flying to Mars under their own power and a talking giant squid in a bowler derby and monocle, I'd have accepted it. My favorite is the last scene at the end, the boy just striking the chalkboard before the girl, like “Come on idiot, the answer goes right fucking here!”

This was something I’d forgotten about until I researched these Saturday morning LDS commercials: the board game Bridges. I couldn’t even find any obvious articles on the web about it (but I did learn that a lot of Mormons like board games), and as I remember it you were more likely to see a commercial about Bridges after school than on Saturday mornings, but to me the idea that I could write away to these chumps and get a free board game was almost too unbelievable. I vaguely recall the commercial above, but I really remember what may have been an extended version that showed more of how the game was played, which looked to be a simplified version of Trivial Pursuit, except with embarrassing, accusatory questions instead of trivia. I really should have written away for this game.

I enjoyed the heck out of these commercials, partly because of their camp value, but also because they weren’t obviously trying to sell me something—I had no idea what the Latter-Day Saints were and I didn’t care (though I did like to say “Saturday Laints” to no one in particular.) All I knew was that I got a nice catchy tune and some positive reinforcement in between the onslaught of toy and candy advertisements that shaped the larger aspects of my childhood. I lied a blue streak as a kid, and live an adult life based on a foundation of lies, so these PSAs clearly didn’t take. But I like to think I took something important from them: an understanding that there are people in this world who don’t expect to be fleeced at every turn, and those people are known as Mormons.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Reggie.

    I'm an LDS myself and most articles are either "Dem Mormons is havin all da' wivs and them iz satinizts" or our own stuff which, naturally, doesn't have much bad stuff to say.

    I know what you wrote wasn't about Mormons and more about the ads, but even so: I'm amazed at how much this doesn't feel like you're saying yea or nay to LDS people as a whole. It was pretty refreshing to read something that appears to have said "I have absolutely no opinion on the people, but DAMN, those ads". You seemed to simply recognise we were there, and in a way, moved on.

    So while it wasn't your point, thank you for writing something that neither went out of it's way to attack or defend us.