Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

A Very Special History of The More You Know

Paradise Found Around, YouTube
Paradise Found Around, YouTube

For the past 29 years, NBC has devoted a portion of airtime that could otherwise be sold for substantial advertising dollars to provide brief reminders about basic human decency, teen issues, and social controversies. Efficiently packaged in 30-second increments and featuring recognizable faces, The More You Know campaign has become synonymous with lessons in ethics. Wrap up a serious conversation with your kid about drug use and they’re likely to respond by humming the campaign’s theme song. (“Da-da-da-dahhh.”)

But how did the network find itself the messenger for these widely celebrated (and widely parodied) spots? And did they really have any impact?

 
 

The idea of a public service announcement—a philanthropic use of airtime on television or radio to serve a greater good—started in the United States back in the 1940s, when stations allocated some of their commercial or program time to remind people about the war efforts under the guidance of the newly-formed War Advertising Council. The idea had been imported from the UK, which had long featured film reels on public safety tips, like how to cross a road. PSAs relied on truncated, catchy messages (“Loose lips sink ships”) to impart ideas with the limited time they had available.

After the Allied victory, the War Advertising Council became the Ad Council, and the scope of their mission changed from world-altering events to comparatively mundane topics. Aligned with mandates from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), public service announcements attempted to balance special interests with objective information. In the late 1960s, for example, the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine took aim at tobacco advertising, with one PSA on the dangers of the habit airing for every three cigarette spots. The number of smokers in the U.S. actually declined before the FCC banned such advertising from airwaves altogether in 1971.

By the 1980s, the major networks (ABC, NBC, CBS) narrowed their PSA efforts by giving them a unique identity. ABC’s Schoolhouse Rock was among the most popular, using catchy songs to illustrate points about government or science. NBC aired One to Grow On, a series of cautionary messages about everything from chewing tobacco to finishing your homework, with Mr. T. and Michael J. Fox sharing their scripted wisdom.

 
 

In the late 1980s, Rosalyn Weinman, NBC's vice president of broadcast standards and practices, was approached by several nonprofit educational groups to see if the network might want to get involved in raising awareness for the teacher shortage affecting the country. Weinman reached out to former NBC creative director-turned-ad executive Steve Lance, gave him a slogan (“The More You Know”), and asked him to produce five test spots centered around the importance of teachers and education. While NBC wasn't crazy about the campaign, Weinman had support from her own team and from some marketable names working for the network.

“She said she had a few stars of NBC series willing to do PSAs. What I absolutely didn’t want to do was a talking-head campaign," Lance tells Mental Floss of not wanting to shoot videos where actors would stand or sit on a spare set and deliver their message. "Talking heads were absolute death.”

Instead, Lance wrote a series of spots focusing on bolstering the public perception of teachers by acknowledging famous educators throughout history like Aristotle and Albert Einstein and stretching Weinman’s slogan to “The more you know, the more you can teach.” Miami Vice co-star Saundra Santiago appeared in one of the spots, which began airing in 1989; so did news anchors Tom Brokaw and Deborah Norville, as well as L.A. Law co-stars Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry.

To help give the campaign a visual identity, Lance was paired with Steve Bernstein, a graphic designer who came up with the shooting star illustration that signaled the end of the segment. Bernstein tells Mental Floss he wondered why NBC was reaching out to freelancers rather than in-house employees. "Nobody else [at NBC] would do it," he says. "They were too busy, so Rosalyn had to go outside the network." Bernstein came up with a star that fit neatly under the "W" in the slogan.

Originally, the logo was filmed so it looked like it was in motion, not animated. “We didn’t have the budget for that,” Lance says. The familiar melody was composed by two-time Emmy winner Michael Karp, who also created the theme for Dateline NBC.

The spots garnered praise: Lance wrote a total of 17 that first year, all of them centered around the importance of educators—but Lance left after finishing that first batch when Weinman decided to go in a different direction: NBC was apparently concerned viewers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between set-decorated spots and actual commercials, so Weinman reverted to the “talking head” premise.

 
 

Despite Lance's departure and the change of format, the series continued just as successfully as before. Its minimalist approach was attractive to actors who enjoyed delivering their lines in a loose and informal setting, and by 1996, director David Cornell herded in actors (including Courteney Cox, Jonathan Silverman, and Eriq La Salle) over a single weekend to tape spots for the entire year, often asking them to pare down their delivery so that it would fit into a 25-second block of time. (The last five seconds were reserved for the star graphic and Karp’s melody.)

The Ad Council, which had seen its role minimized over the years, would later take issue with the proprietary campaigns launched by networks, arguing that they were little more than stealth ads for their programs. To their point, NBC did appear to use at least half the casts of ER and Seinfeld. But the spots could sometimes net tangible results: In 1995, after a series of The More You Know spots on domestic violence, calls to the Domestic Violence Hotline went from 228 calls daily to quadruple that amount. The network earned a Public and Community Service Emmy for its efforts, and the campaign—which still airs on NBC—grew to include spots by the cast of Friends and a comedic take courtesy of The Office, as well as appearances by sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. You can watch some of the more well-known (and rather dated) spots below.

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Upper Playground, YouTube
He's Also a Client: The Saga of Sy Sperling's Hair Club
Upper Playground, YouTube
Upper Playground, YouTube

Divorced, depressed, and with his midsection growing, Sy Sperling stood in front of a mirror at his home in Long Island in the late 1960s and adjusted his hair. It wasn’t his hair, exactly, but a toupee purchased for the express purpose of obscuring his prematurely shiny crown.

Though he was only 26, Sperling had been losing his hair for years. Now that he was newly single, he felt self-conscious about his receding hairline, believing it would diminish his chances with the opposite sex. He tried combing tufts of hair from the side over to the front. He tried the toupee, which looked like a road-flattened beaver. He tried weaving, which knitted human locks to his existing strands; the first time he shampooed it, it collapsed into a ball of knotted hair.

Like many pioneering spirits before him, Sperling imagined that there had to be a better way—a solution to regaining his lost self-confidence and living the life he desired.

In the coming years, Sperling and his second wife, a hairstylist, would perfect an existing approach with irresistible marketing that provided a solution for millions of follicle-deprived individuals everywhere. And much of that success came from Sperling admitting that he was not just the president. He was also a client.

 
 

Baldness “cures” date back to the most ancient civilizations. Egyptians used hippopotamus and crocodile fat as hair growth stimulants. In Rome, burning donkey genitals and mixing the ashes with urine was believed to help grow luscious locks. Various concoctions involving poop were believed to work, too.

In more enlightened times, thinning hair could be addressed with transplantation surgery. In 1939, a Japanese dermatologist extracted hair-bearing skin and replanted it by punching a small hole on sites affected by burn injuries. This practice was mirrored by Norman Orentreich, a New York dermatologist who successfully planted hairs into a patient with male pattern baldness in the 1950s. Orentreich was the first person to observe that hairs on the sides of the head were largely resistant to shedding and would therefore remain in place when transplanted to the top or front of the head.

For decades, this was a crude surgical practice, giving rise to a number of patients who had hair sparsely transplanted and created a reputation for heads that appeared to be implanted with “plugs.” It wasn’t until the 1990s that transplants could be more densely packed, offering a convincing restoration of the hairline.

For Sperling, who was born in 1942 and in his 20s when his hair loss became apparent, invasive surgery that was still years away from being refined wasn’t an option. After his sister admonished him to “do something” about the thinning hair that was causing him such grief, he went to a hairstylist who recommended weaving. While somewhat effective, this only seemed practical if hair was remaining on top. Toupees were out, as Sperling had a particular concern over solutions that could fall off or become dislodged during more intimate moments.

"If you're dating and going to be having special moments, how do you explain, 'I got to take my hair off now?'" he asked.

Even with its drawbacks, weaving seemed like the best option. After learning the technique from his stylist, Sperling left his job in swimming pool sales and opened his own salon on New York City's Madison Avenue in 1968. Using $10,000 in capital from credit cards, he leased a vacant business that already had barber-style chairs. Soon, he and his new wife, Amy—who, it turned out, was indifferent to his hair shortage—perfected a technique in which they used a nylon mesh fitted to the scalp. The net-like fabric allowed the head to breathe and for hairs to grow out from under it. It also acted as a base for human hair strands to be woven on top and secured with a polymer adhesive. The entire “system” was secured to the client by weaving the mesh into the hair on the sides. The result was a relatively natural-looking addition that would remain in place through showering, exercising, and—key for Sperling—sexual activity.

The approach took off, enticing New Yorkers and celebrities alike. (Sperling later insisted Jimi Hendrix came in for a fitting in 1969.) Sperling’s business grew steadily throughout the 1970s, but by 1979, sales were leveling off. The problem was that even though he had happy customers, they were reticent to tell friends about their hair-replacement efforts, so word-of-mouth was not reliable. That’s when Sperling decided to advertise.

 
 

Sperling’s business, then known as the Hair Club for Men, debuted on national television in 1982. One early campaign featured testimonials from actual customers, but the response was minimal. Producers had shot a second spot featuring Sperling himself and considered it as a back-up plan in case the first approach failed. The infomercial aired late at night, when advertising time was cheapest.

Though Sperling was no trained actor or orator, he was genuine. “I’m not just the president,” he said. “I’m also a client.”

When it aired, the reaction was immediate. The Hair Club got 10,000 calls in a month. Interested parties received a brochure discussing various hair-system options and why Sperling’s approach worked. By 1991, there were 40 franchise locations, where clients paid between $2000 and $3500 for a custom mesh that used colored and textured hair to match their natural growth. A maintenance appointment every two months cost $65.

By 1993, the commercial was airing 400 times a day, costing Sperling $12 million annually in advertising expenses. But it was drawing up to $100 million annually in sales. In admitting what most men wouldn't, Sperling engendered trust—and profit.

 
 

Later, the Hair Club for Men would undergo several cosmetic alterations to its business model. Sperling moved away from strip-mall locations for his clinics and into commercial office spaces to help provide discretion. He even used initials—HCM—on signage to promote privacy.

The “For Men” was dropped as more women suffering from hair loss due to genetics or illness came looking for assistance. Sperling also provided assistance to kids with cancer diagnoses. Through it all, he sold something more than polymers and mesh: Hair Club trafficked in confidence and self-esteem. He allowed reporters to tug on his own hair as a demonstration of quality. It would barely move. "Not bad, eh?" he asked a Spy journalist in 1991. "It really is an amazing transformation."

The hair stayed in place, but Sperling didn’t. In 2000, he sold Hair Club for $45 million to a group of investors who turned around and sold it in 2005 to the Regis hair company for $210 million. Today, Hair Club still offers solutions similar to what Sperling marketed, as well as proven topical treatments like Rogaine (minoxidil), laser combs purported to stimulate growth, and transplantation surgery.

Sperling had an impressive 15-year non-compete clause for the initial sale, though he hasn’t yet announced any plans to get back into the hair-boosting business. Still, photographs of Sterling from earlier this year show that the septuagenarian still has a full head of hair.

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Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
'Eat Lead!': When Activists Hacked Talking Barbie
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0
Meester X, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

With his familiar green fatigues and grenade clipped to his chest, G.I. Joe platoon leader Duke appeared carved from granite, not plastic. The 12-inch action figure was part of Hasbro’s Hall of Fame series, a premium-format figure released in 1993. Press his chest and the military specialist’s voice box would be activated, allowing Duke to shout a series of commands or threats.

But for a number of boys who unwrapped him on Christmas Day 1993, Duke appeared to be in no mood for conflict. When pressed to speak, he would instead exclaim, “Let’s go shopping!”

At the same time, parents who had gifted their children Mattel’s Teen Talk Barbie—which was also equipped with a voice chip—were equally confused. Instead of talking about clothes or Corvettes, the Barbies sounded like they had been gargling gravel. “Eat lead, Cobra!” shouted one. “Vengeance is mine!”

Families were not amused: The dolls weren't cheap—each had a $40 to $50 price tag. After examining the box for any signs of tampering, some parents came across a small leaflet that helped explain the toys’ out-of-character speeches. A group calling themselves the Barbie Liberation Organization was taking responsibility for the switch. The goal of their stunt was to reframe the conversation over gender roles in America.

 
 

Since she first hit shelves in 1959, Barbie has transcended her boxed-in identity as mere toy store inventory to become an avatar for girls looking for a role model. (At one point, the doll received 20,000 fan letters a week.) The size of her waist, her job skills, her Malibu beach house—all of it has been commandeered by social anthropologists looking to see whether her influence is enriching young girls' lives or offering dispiriting, stereotyped notions of femininity.

That debate took a turn for the worse in 1992, when Mattel released a teenaged variation of the doll that exclaimed “math class is tough!” Women’s groups were outraged, believing that Barbie was falling victim to harmful tropes that put a ceiling on both her intellect and that of her pre-teen consumers.

Though the phrase was just one of 270 the doll could utter at random—others included “I love school, don’t you?”—it received the brunt of media attention, including demands to recall the dolls. (Mattel apologized, but did not pull the dolls off shelves.)

The debate over whether Barbie had social responsibilities caught the attention of Igor Vamos, a student of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. Vamos was intrigued by the idea of “cultural jamming,” a kind of analog hacking that upended conventional ideas to create controversy. If Barbie taught passivity and sexism with her complaints of math being hard, then perhaps she should be given a different script.

Vamos bought several dozen Teen Talk Barbies and Talking Duke figures from toy stores in California and New York. He and several other “operatives” dismantled the toys, performing a crude surgery that allowed them to switch the voice boxes buried in their bodies. Volunteers would use a knife to cut into the dolls' plastic skin, then modify the transistor of the Joe’s voice chip so it would fit into Barbie’s comparatively slimmer torso.

A screenshot of a G.I. Joe Talking Duke figure

21solo, YouTube

After repackaging the dolls, the team “shop-dropped,” surreptitiously restocking them on toy shelves in Albany, San Diego, and Walnut Creek, California. Each box had a piece of paper encouraging disgruntled parents to reach out to the media after discovering the toys weren’t gender-conforming. To speed things along, they also told friends to buy the dolls and make the calls. Then they waited.

Within weeks, adults confused by their child’s new toys did exactly what the B.L.O. suggested, telling local news affiliates that their Barbie was shouting attack commands and informing kids that “dead men tell no lies.” Duke, meanwhile, rebuffed war strategy, preferring to “plan our dream wedding.”

The ensuing media coverage is exactly what Vamos was hoping for. Calling the toys' gender roles “stone-aged,” the B.L.O. claimed responsibility, stayed anonymous, and hoped it would cause consumers to rethink the propagation of violence by male toys and the relatively vacuous ambitions of Barbie.

"Obviously, our goal is to get media attention,” a B.L.O. spokesperson told The New York Times. “We are trying to make a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism."

Vamos even supervised production of a video that used Barbie to spell out their mission. “They build us in a way that perpetuates gender-based stereotypes,” the toy said. “Those stereotypes have a negative effect on children’s development.”

 
 

While most considered the act harmless—the toys could, after all, be exchanged for an unadulterated version—not everyone believed the B.L.O.’s mission played fair. "I've got a very strong negative feeling about terrorist acts against children, no matter how noble the motives," Joanne Oppenheim, a toy industry advocate, told the Times. “It's a cheap shot, and it's unfair to the kids.” Others protested the general idea of product tampering.

Mattel and Hasbro were less rattled. Wayne Charness, then-vice president of Hasbro, called it “kind of ridiculous,” while Mattel refrained from commenting. Though the B.L.O. claimed to have tampered with hundreds of toys in 43 different states, the truth was that Vamos and his team had performed surgery on roughly 120 toys. But the media perpetuated the story, making it seem as though the stunt was pervasive.

The story died down after the holidays. The tampered toys were either returned or bought and discarded. Vamos kept his role in the stunt largely under wraps until years later, when he became a part of The Yes Men, a social disruption performance group, under the alias Mike Bonanno. Vamos is now a professor of media arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Was the stunt effective? Anecdotally, maybe. Media outlets like Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal profiled kids and parents who had been affected by the switch, including 7-year-old Zach, the recipient of a Barbie-possessed Duke. Asked if he wanted to return the toy, Zach said no: “He’s teaching me not to fight.”

Were kids really influenced by the toys to rethink gender portrayals, or were they yet another example of the B.L.O. manipulating the media by using an undercover operative to articulate their message? If Barbie knows, she isn't talking. 

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