After three months of living in the Australian summer I am paler than I was when I got here. Only part of this is due to my indoor job, the other part is due to the terrified aversion Australians have to placing their person in the direct sunlight. I understand that this is a justifiable fear – the Australian sun is very intense and skin cancer is common. When strolling on the beach, it’s easy to identify British tourists by their bright red sunburns on a pale, pasty base. I notice because I made the same mistake on my first visit Down Under back in 1999. Overly excited about escaping the slush-covered roads and gray skies of January in New Jersey, I gleefully flung off layers of clothing only to be tazered in about fifteen minutes by the sun, which although it looks the same as the one back home, seems here to be on some kind of steroid. As a result, children’s play areas, public pools, schools, and sports venues often boast a “Sun Smart” award logo, as they have been publicly recognized for providing enough trees or shade sails for their outdoor areas to offer a protective berth between their patrons and the devil sun of the Southern hemisphere. In addition, the old “Slip (on a shirt), Slop (on sunscreen), and Slap (on a hat)” ad campaign of the 80’s is still alive and well. Since I’m used to them now, it would be easy to offer a generic “that’s nice” at the sun protection ads. But since I’ve been living here, I’ve noticed that sun protection is not the only warning Australians are getting on a regular basis. For whatever reason, Australians seem to be addicted to the Public Service Announcement.
In America, public service announcements are generally geared towards kids and rarely show up on TV at times other than during Saturday morning cartoons. They range from discouraging smoking or texting while driving to emphasizing telling someone if you are being cyber-bullied. They are often presented by a smiling, attractive TV personality and with the exception of the smoking ones, are careful not to shock or scare the viewer too much. Australian PSA’s are not just more shocking, but far more numerous. There are so many, I wonder if Aussies are either extremely caring of their fellow citizens or just completely untrusting of one another’s common sense. They seem to worry that someone might at any moment do something very stupid when presented with a wide variety of dangerous items and situations, including but not limited to barbeques, alcohol consumption, smoking, swimming pools, small household appliances, sporting events, working in a trade job, driving while fatigued, or travelling to areas that may or may not be bushfire prone.
With the arrival of a holiday (such as the recent Australia Day holiday weekend) the PSA producers go into overdrive in order to remind everyone that all the fun they’re planning to have could be very, very dangerous. One horrific ad looks as if it’s been filmed from the bottom of a swimming pool. You hear a splash, and vague background chatter and music while a stopwatch ticks off twenty seconds. Then the PSA announcer, in a severely grave voice, tells you that’s exactly how long it takes your toddler to drown. Depressing anti-smoking campaigns, (which are no stranger to Americans but do not occur at all in France or Italy) often show an ordinarily happy family torn apart because the smoking member has died, been paralysed, is in an iron lung, or has to use one of those voice boxes that makes you sound like a robot. But during this hot, dry time of year, fire prevention PSAs are the ones that rule the airways. Fires in Australia pose a serious threat. Like tornadoes, they move fast, and like hurricanes, are often deadly if you don’t evacuate. Not only are summers here hot, dry and windy, but the landscape is dotted with eucalyptus trees, which under normal circumstances sway along in their silvery splendour and smell delicious. But if caught in a firewall, that essential oil we love so much is not only flammable, but explosive. I have never seen a tree explode, and imagine it could be quite a sight, but, mind you, I surely wouldn’t want to be standing under it at the time. Because summer vacation season coincides with summer fire season, warnings about campfires in wooded recreational areas to making sure the gas lines of one’s barbeque are properly cleaned take up every other space during TV ad time.
One thing about Australians, they are usually pretty good about being direct. A very popular ad campaign simply brands drunk drivers as “bloody idiots.” Work Safe is similar to Sun Safe, but awards businesses that make sure their workers wear high visibility shirts and don’t cut their fingers off with saws. Employers are very proud of their Work Safe rating, and are reluctant to hire “bloody idiots” or anyone else who might be too stupid to wear his safety goggles. However, I think other PSAs are Australia’s way of admitting to the world that they all have a reputation for being hard-partying sportsmen, and trying to rein it in a bit without truly admitting any apologies for such. One warns stubby-toting blokes to make an effort to prevent their footy clubs from turning into drinking clubs. It’s almost a half-assed PSA, like someone made them do it. But most, like the Sun Smart ones, are so numerous you know they must really mean it. Along roadsides (especially on long, flat interstates) spaced at about 100 yard intervals, are a series of signs worrying at various intervals about my level of fatigue while driving. Some ask, “Drowsy? Think about Pulling Over,” while others practically yell at me, “Power Nap Now!” Although I think a better one would say, “Hey you! Stupid American! Make sure you keep driving on the left, alright!”
On that note, in a country full of PSA’s, there seem to be quite a few what I would consider, very important ones missing. How about a sign reminding everyone that every snake in this country is poisonous, and they should refrain from letting their dogs loose or peeing in the grass? How about telling people to look in their showerheads for deadly white-tail spiders before they turn on the tap lest one dangle down in front of them when they are at their most vulnerable? (This did happen to someone I know). I haven’t been down to the beach in a while, but I can guess there are probably more signs warning people of the dangers of sunburn than of the dangers of snapping sharks or horribly painful bluebottle jellyfish. Perhaps it’s because Australians have come to live with their unique (albeit slightly scary) natural world, and they understand that most bad accidents are caused by humans. Perhaps that since they truly care about one another, they would definitely drive a mate home if he got too drunk at footy club, got sunburned, and misused his barbeque causing the tree in his backyard to explode, although he may have to pull over and have a power nap on the way.