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Column: Hey, Hollywood, we could use a snappy ‘wear the damn mask’ campaign right now

A man and a woman, both wearing masks, walk along Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood.
A couple walk along Santa Monica Blvd. in West Hollywood, CA. Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputies will issue citations for not wearing masks in public.
(Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times)

Hey, Los Angeles, can we get some decent “wear the damn mask” PSAs going already?

On Thursday, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that the state would finally be initiating a public awareness campaign and, while I applaud the “wear a mask, slow the spread” effort, this really is a time for the private sector to step in and step it up.

I mean, here we are, the center of the entertainment industry, six months into a global pandemic and we’re still confining ourselves to #wearamask on Twitter? Relying on Matthew McConaughey and Jason from freaking “Friday the 13th” to get the word out?

I mean, I love McConaughey as much as the next person, but he’s one man! Living in Texas! Are we going to let Texas beat us at the PSA game? Or, God forbid, New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo held a contest, the winner of which was called “We Love NY”?

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Yes, OK, Newsom did convince some of his gubernatorial predecessors to do a PSA with him when he first made wearing masks mandatory in California — and no doubt his new campaign will be even better, but come on. Are we really going leave it to the government to start a trend? Where are the VSCO girls? Where are the product-placement experts? Where are the ad agency creatives and the celebrities who are not Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson? We need to make facemasks hot. As in Hydroflask and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee hot, roller-skating redux hot, Sriracha everything and AirPods hot.

And we need to do it right now.

The sheriff’s station will issue citations to those not following the statewide coronavirus health order to don face coverings while in public or high-risk settings.

California infection rates are increasing, especially in L.A. County, in large part because some people refuse to wear masks. (Reopening the bars probably didn’t help either.)

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I’m not going to argue about this — studies have shown that wearing a face mask decreases the chance of infection. Period. Hence Newsom’s statewide requirement. Yet everywhere you go there are people breathing all over everything exactly as if we were not in the middle of a pandemic with California infection rates rising.

Don’t give me politics. Don’t (and I never thought I would say this) blame the president. He has not been a great model in this, but are we all walking around in ill-fitting blue suits, overlong red ties and way too much makeup? No, we are not. If Donald Trump doesn’t value his life enough to wear a mask, that’s his own issue. A virus has no voting preference. A virus is just looking for a warm body to kill.

Meanwhile, those of us who do wear masks see this and wonder, “How can this be? Why are so many people ignoring the obvious solution to this terrible problem?”

I don’t know, how hard was it to wear a seat belt? Or to stop flicking lit cigarettes into the brush and leaving campfires burning in the forest? How hard was it to quit thinking it was OK to throw bags of trash out the car window?

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Hard enough to warrant some fairly serious and successful PSA campaigns.

Smokey the Bear has been warning us that “Only you can prevent forest fires” since the 1940s, and the 1971 “Keep American Beautiful” “Crying Indian” commercial (though problematic in many other ways including the fact that the “Indian” was portrayed not by a Native American but an Italian American) kept many bags of trash in the car, and is still considered one of the best ads of all time.

These and other campaigns, including Woodsy the Owl (“Give a hoot, don’t pollute!”) helped modify many types of harmful behavior over the years — but it’s the “Crash Dummies” series that provides the best “wear a mask” model.

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The federal law requiring seat belts in all vehicles passed in 1968, but by 1985, only 21% of Americans were using them. Car seats? Forget about it — kids just rolled around in the back of station wagons half the time. Then, in an effort to decrease the number of car accident fatalities, the U.S. Department of Transportation partnered with the Ad Council to produces a series of ads featuring two crash test dummies.

Over the next six years, Vince and Larry tried to explain, and often vividly show, the need for buckling up. Each spot ended with the memorable tagline “You could learn a lot from a dummy” and, in conjunction with the passage of many state laws, helped almost quadruple the safety-belt compliance rate.

Creators Jim Ferguson and Joel Machak also won an Addy award, a Cannes Film Festival Bronze Lion, two Clios and a place in the Smithsonian.

In case any creatives out there need further enticement.

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Because that’s what we need right now — “You could learn a lot from a dummy” for face masks. Not a bunch of boring former governors telling us to do it because “Californians look out for each other.” A fun but firm campaign with a clever tagline. Something a bit more user-friendly than, say, “wear a mask, you moron,” to make it easier for those of us who already got the memo to admonish non-mask wearers. (Children love taglines and are often the most consistent, and irresistible, social enforcers, as any former litterbug or smoker knows.)

In a recent interview with my colleague Nita Lelyveld, seismologist and local patron saint of science Lucy Jones said flattening the coronavirus curve comes down to “Don’t share your air.” That could work.

How about “if you want to bask, wear a mask”? Or “Going someplace? Cover your face.” Go tentpole-wide with “All superheroes wear masks,” or hit the prestige note with something like “Drink to me only with thine eyes.”

And get lots of celebrities involved — in the PSAs and daily life. Stephen Colbert and Ellen DeGeneres have issued daily reminders to wear a mask, but maybe they should wear one too. I know, I know, they don’t have to since they are filming from their home, but there is definitely a disconnect between what we are seeing on TV during their shows and what we are being told to do, so maybe they could give it a go, just for an episode or two — just to show that wearing a mask will not actually cause a person to suffocate or break out in hives, that it need not change your ability to communicate or go about your “normal” life. Especially since both “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and DeGeneres are selling their own branded masks.

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Maybe the next big reunion of an old television show could feature a face-covered ensemble. Imagine the “Hamilton” cast singing “My Shot” in black masks.

Why has the U.S. done so much worse than Europe in controlling the coronavirus? Preferring medical miracles, Americans reject simple public health steps.

I’m just spitballing here, but you get the idea. We need to make masks a habit — a must-have, like a pumpkin spice whatever. Attraction plus repetition equals retention, which is pretty much the mandate of every television, film, music and advertising executive in this town. So instead of wearing out your Twitter and Insta feeds, creative geniuses, put your skills to work for good and get a “Got Milk?” type campaign going — one so good it will work on every platform.

Me, I’m already a convert. I’m actually a huge fan of masks. They hide so many trouble spots, really make your eyes pop and prevent men from telling you to smile because no one can tell if you are smiling or not!

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There are so many styles and fabrics to choose from, and as for making a statement, well, a baseball cap or T-shirt has nothing on a face mask.

I mean, it’s on your actual face.

I’m surprised that more companies, including, ahem, the Los Angeles Times, aren’t following Colbert, Ellen and, of course, Disney, in leveraging this opportunity — many more people are going to see a logo on a face mask than on a key ring or a smartphone case; let’s make face masks the free tote bag of 2020! Because God knows we do not need another tote bag!

As for politics, there is no better way to say “Make America Great Again” than on a mask. That you are actually wearing. Over your nose and mouth.

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Because if you really want to make America great again, you will need a few other Americans still capable of walking around to help.


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