I’ve developed a pretty strange hobby lately. I spent an entire weekend binge watching old PSA and propaganda films from the 1940’s and 50’s. These forgotten public domain shorts were brought back to public attention by MST3K and Rifftrax, and now there are a few Youtube channels which archive them. It’s a lot of fun to make up your own riffs or just laugh at how silly they are. But their outdated morals and old fashioned writing style did get me thinking about what these old shorts can teach us writers today about how to properly write and sell our books to modern readers. Here are just a few things I’ve come up with:
- Portray Your Message in the Right Way
Let’s face it, nobody ever got anything out of these films. When that big TV was wheeled into the classroom, nobody thought ‘Oh boy, time to learn about springs!’ they thought ‘yes, we don’t have to do any actual schoolwork for a while!’ If educators wanted children to learn about these things, which quite frankly should have been things their parents or teachers were telling them anyway, these movies were not the way to do it.
The same was true for sales videos. Have a look at Once Upon a Honeymoon, one of my favourite MST3K riffs.
Would you ever guess it was intended to sell telephones? Do you reckon it actually sold any telephones? You can see a similar thing in modern employee training videos. New hires are made to sit through the cheesiest videos ever made instead of actually being taught how to do their jobs. Similarly, if you want to sell your books you have to do it in the right way and with the correct medium, otherwise it will be a waste of your time and money.
2. Be Different
You might notice that these 50’s shorts have a lot of messages about conformity and how to fit into society, which is why everybody in them has the exact same hairstyles and clothes and anybody who doesn’t is usually treated as a villain or an outcast. In the 1950’s, particularly in America, people were expected to fit a certain mould and advertisers loved it. It was easy to sell products when everybody fit the exact same demographic.
Today thanks to the internet, social media, and more media than we can hope to consume in a lifetime, it is much easier for us to develop and express our individuality, be it for good or bad. This is why advertisers are in a panic. They can’t appeal to a certain demographic when it is made up of so many different types of people. They are scrambling to get us back into our little boxes, but it isn’t working.
The same is true for book sellers. We need to appeal to what is currently popular but be original at the same time. It is a difficult balance to find. We want to reach as wide a readership as possible while also appealing to our specific niche.
I feel that in today’s market, being different is the best way to stand out and sell more books. There are certain things that all writers must do – have a strong social media presence, regularly update a blog, write a likeable protagonist, etc. But all of the most successful authors find at least some nugget of originality in their writing and come up with unique ways of selling their books.
3. Avoid Repetition
Most old shorts seem to be about grooming, dating, or some kind of social conformity and all teach more-or-less the same things over and over. Their writing style was also incredibly formulaic; introducing some idiot with a problem, have the obnoxious narrator or unexplained otherworldly being solve it for them, and the person is miraculously changed forever. Your own writing may stick to a single genre or theme, but writing the same thing over and over again will bore your readers quickly. It is also a good idea for young authors to find something to write about that hasn’t been tackled before, whether it’s a previously undiscussed issue, a new character perspective, or a combination of two genres to create a new one.
4. Be Timeless
There is no doubt that these films couldn’t have come out of any other time period, which is part of what makes them so hilarious. But it does mean that even the ones with a positive message became outdated within a generation. It is true that all art is a reflection of the time period it was made in and often provides a time capsule of the thoughts and attitudes of the time. It is also near impossible to predict what will become controversial in the future, which is why even sitcoms from only a few decades ago can have uncomfortably offensive jokes. You can still take some measures to avoid this by avoiding stereotypes (nagging wives and useless husbands show up a lot in old shorts).
5. Handle Delicate Issues Correctly
If there was one thing the 50’s was good at, it was denial. You won’t see old PSA’s mentioning homosexuality, except to demonize it, or the civil rights movement which was occurring at the time. The teenagers are still doing the Charleston and dare not mention Elvis Presley and his immoral hip swinging. If you believed these movies, you’d think that the greatest problem that teenagers face is finding a date for Friday night.
But whenever PSA’s did try to handle delicate subjects or important issues, they did a poor job of it. Reefer Madness, possibly the most famous old PSA of all, was under the impression that a single puff of marijuana would turn a normal teenager into a raving, delusional, murderous criminal.
It is worrying to think about the number of people back then going through actual serious issues such as teen pregnancy, mental illness, sexual assault, or addiction but had no practical help. But at least they had a movie to teach them how to take baths!
We’ve figured out now that it is essential to discuss such issues, but we need to ensure that we are doing so with sensitivity and care. Do your research, speak to accredited experts, and show your drafts to people who have experienced the issue to gain their feedback. If you find that you aren’t qualified to discuss the topic correctly, it might be best to not tackle it at all and leave it to someone who is better experienced.
Old PSA’s may be funny, but they can also show us how far we have come with social issues and writing quality. Have a laugh when you watch them and perhaps keep in mind at the same time how you can improve on their terrible writing.