Essays at the intersection of Advertising, Contemporary Art, Design, and Politics.

This Creepy Remixed 1950s PSA Can Teach Us About Leadership and Acceptance

In 2010, Brooklyn’s Ashleigh Nankivell found a public service announcement from 1956 called Helping Johnny Remember. The video was meant to warn children about the dangers of being selfish and domineering in their relationships. But Ashleigh turned it into something more.

Go ahead and watch Johnny remember in Ashleigh’s version. It’ll creep you out, and if you’re like me, you won’t be able to stop watching, over and over again. Nankivell herself explains, “I remember thinking, Johnny is so kickass. These kids are wet farts slogging down cool Johnny who is the proverbial awesome majority of one. Dear Johnny, you rock. It’s time you fought back.”

But I think there’s more to Ashleigh’s creepshow. It actually does a good job of speaking to how mobbing forces antisocial behavior.

Johnny wanted to be in control. Johnny thought his ideas were the best. And Johnny didn’t hesitate to direct the situation. So the rest of the kids kicked him out of their playtime.

Sure, sometimes a lack of control can lead to personal growth —  in Johnny’s situation that would look like learning how to compromise and collaborate. Sometimes, there’s no sense in pushing against situations one can’t control. Maybe it’s better to instead ride them and trust that they will propel us to something better. I believe this myself. But that doesn’t mean I never push back.

It would be wrong-headed to say that a lack of control always leads to growth. Sometimes you just get a laser-eyed Johnny.

This all means that understanding the social context you’re working within before you try to push people or take control from them in some way, shape or form is paramount. People are driven by fear and pain. Uncertainty causes fear and pain. In the end, fear and pain mostly just drive people away. But other times, fear and pain drive people to fight back.

It’s the rare person whose own belief system allows for I’m going to mature because of this who will actually do that. No one person can or should force a belief system onto another, if for no other reason because most people will freak out and push against whatever it is that’s being forced on them.

Positive and lasting change comes from first putting yourself into the shoes of those you want to change. That’s a simple way of saying, understand their experience. When you understand another person’s experience, without judgment, you’re much better positioned to work alongside them and, ultimately, influence them because you can speak their “language.”

My favorite example of this comes from famed community organizer, Saul Alinsky, who spent some time walking around the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, attempting to give passersby $10 bills. Alinsky was able to give away exactly nothing. Why? Because being offered money by an approaching stranger was outside the experience of everyone he approached — they all told him to get lost before he could even open his mouth. Most of us expect to be asked for money when we’re approached on the street, not given it.

This type of thinking — understanding another’s experience and communicating to them within it — is most intuitively applied to career networking. But it can also be applied within organizations to team building, employee engagement, and advertising and marketing efforts. The more we know about each other and our clients, what each believes, where each comes from, where each wants to go, and how each sees themselves getting there, the better able we all are to collaborate.

So what about Johnny? Was he an overbearing jerk who needed to be taught a lesson, or a budding Director who wasn’t given a chance? We can’t know. No one ever asked for his point of view.

By the way? Here’s the original PSA. I agree with Ashleigh — those kids are a gang of wet farts. Johnny’s a born leader. Tomorrow’s Scorsese. Lead on, Johnny. Lead on.