Everything You Never Knew About 1980s PSAs

In the 1980s, we watched what the networks said we should watch. It was perfect for subjecting the people to the best-slash-worst public service announcements (PSAs) of all time.

Today’s proliferation of channel options borders on the absurd, but there was a time when most households had fewer channels than any one person had fingers.

On the off chance, one had cable TV, there may have been a few dozen more options. Back then, cable was a wasteland of reruns, with few commercials.

There was no internet. There were no Kardashians. But, thanks to the Ad Council, we had PSAs.

This is a test of the emergency broadcasting…

Thanks to the cold war, the ‘80s enjoyed a haunting, regular announcement. Technically, it was not a PSA, but it lived in the same neighborhood.

The emergency broadcast system or EBS played a message warning viewers that they were about to hear a test. If they played the actual EBS signal, that meant that the nukes were in the air and the world was about to end.

The U.S. centralized the whole system, controlling it with passwords to get the word out via the networks with one proverbial finger.

In 1971, someone inadvertently sent a message to stations, telling them to play the real thing using the code word: hatefulness. Nothing scary about that code word. The initiator of the warning retracted the request but using the wrong retraction codeword, but that was the least of the problems.

Some stations didn’t even notice their test was not supposed to be a test, playing the test version anyway. That meant most had stopped following procedures. Others ran the real thing, but there were no nukes in the air.

The event led to an overhaul of the system, but for naught, as it was never used for real.

This is Your Brain on Drugs

Most anyone, even kids born after the ’80s, knows about this PSA. It happened, then nobody would let it die. Brain on drugs became a meme for the ages. Bring up PSAs at any social event, and someone will shout “this is your brain on drugs.”

Few know that the 1980 version was only one of three that rolled out. In the original PSA, the narrator drops an egg into a frying pan to demonstrate one’s brain on drugs. Then he asks, “any questions?”

In 1997, Rachael Leigh Cook starred in an updated version about heroin and the brain of a user. It ends with her smashing the frying pan everywhere to demonstrate how heroin destroys everything and everyone in one’s life. Then she asks the famous line, “any questions?”

Apparently, America’s obsession with remakes know no bounds. In 2016 they remade the first PSA, segueing into scenes of teenagers asking actual questions. It seems they did have something to ask.

I learned it from watching you

This one ties the last one for most well known, even outside the 80s-era viewers.

In the PSA, a father confronts his son with drugs he’s found. It’s the kid’s drugs. He asks the boy where he learned it. “From you…” he replies. “I learned it from watching you.”

Then the sting; the announcer informs viewers, “parents who do drugs have children who do drugs.”

The 1987 campaign illicit more snickers than anything. Over the years, the lines would make it into countless parodies, including a funnyordie gag where the father apologizes years later. It’s worth the time if you have a minute. The language is a little strong for ilikehistory, so consider yourself warned.

McGruff the Crime Dog

The McGruff Crime Dog predates the ’80s, but by that decade, he’d cemented himself into the National conversation. McGruff’s creation was in response to the rising crime of the ’60s. It was a decade of change, but it was also a decade of assassination and other violent crime.

Crime rate continued to rise into the early 1970s. Then, in 1977, the Department of Justice approached the Ad Council. By ’79, they had their dog, and a slogan: take a bite out of crime.

After a contest to name him in 1980, “McGruff the crime dog” stepped into the spotlight.

While most consider the McGruff campaign silly in hindsight, it was measurably an effective campaign for reducing crime. Rates did fall. McGruff became a recognizable face and remains so to this day.

He gave concrete advice to families, steps they could take to increase safety, and people did those things. The Ad Council kept tight tabs on McGruff’s public perception and impact.

It was with great irony that the actor who played the real world version of McGruff went to jail in 2014 for drugs and weapons charges. He is serving a 16-year sentence.

The GI Joe PSAs

From 1985 to ’87, an animated series featuring the popular toy GI Joe ended every episode with a quick PSA. These were not Ad Council PSAs, but they had the same impact on pop culture.

The characters from the cartoon would engage kids who were about to take risks, giving them advice. The spots would always end with the advice: “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”

They tackled all the tough subjects: talking to strangers,  drugs, fire, electricity, skateboarding without protective pads. As a kid of the ’80s and a fan of GI Joe, I can say they were pretty silly, but the messages made it through, like how I learned that all the good drugs were in the medicine cabinet.

In 2003, a site called eBaum’s World published 25 edited versions of the GI Joe PSAs, with overdubbed messages ranging from the silly to the bizarre. The spots, the work of filmmaker Eric Fensler, took an already silly idea to the next level. Speaking of worth your time if you want a laugh, watch this compilation.


There were other PSAs in the ‘80s, but these are the ones which defined this corner of the decade. Lest anyone should try to say that the 1980s were the best, don’t buy that garbage. It was a terrible time for entertainment.

If they push back, put in an episode of Land of the Lost. Then sit back and lose your mind. Any questions?