When you type "say no to gangs" into the search engine on the province of Manitoba’s website, you get a curious suggestion.
"Did you mean, ‘say no to giants?’ " it asks.
Why, of course. I’m always being pushed around by giants.
Rarely a day goes by when I don’t get bullied by some obnoxious, oversized oaf who wants to snatch my lunch money into his oversized paws.
I’m usually just walking down Albert Street, minding my own business, when some Hagrid wannabe lurches out of an alley and mumbles "fee, fi, fo, fum" before hitting me up for spare change.
Clearly, the giant issue in downtown Winnipeg has gotten out of hand. The province should probably shoot a video about it.
Instead, it’s directed all its cinematic energy toward the far less Rowling-esque task of getting rid of street gangs by clamping down on their highly sophisticated recruitment methods.
In recent weeks, a 30-second TV spot called Say No To Gangs has appeared on local stations, imploring the youth of Winnipeg to avoid the ever-so-attractive career opportunities afforded by membership in one of the many fine criminal organizations that normally advertise their existence by scrawling graffiti over garages and autobins.
Normally, I’m all for educational messages on television. I’ve taken a lot of good advice from the advertising world over the years.
As a small child in the ’70s, I stuck very close to my parents after learning Calgon could take me away. As a teenager in the ’80s, I learned it was worth the trip to Steinbach, if only to catch a glimpse of the great Stan Kubicek.
More recently, Listerine has allowed me to recognize of the perils posed by the The Evil Gingivitis, which is either some form of medical condition or the subject of a new private member’s bill authored by Winnipeg Centre MP Pat Martin.
But I’m not so certain Say No To Gangs will convince anyone to do much of anything, mainly because I don’t believe the decision to join a gang is a lifestyle choice on par with a decision to, say, shop at Gap or buy one of those cute little goats the people at Telus seem to be selling this season.
Police, politicians and social workers routinely say teens often join gangs for no reason other than they grow up or live around gangs. The actual "decision" to join is not like enrolling in the Boy Scouts or signing up for piano lessons; it’s something that happens gradually.
The process is more like acquiring an identity than making an actual decision. It involves a slow immersion in what sociologists call a deviant subculture — a subgroup of society that has values, mores and norms of its own. Acquiring an entire belief system, especially an anti-social and destructive belief system, does not happen overnight.
But advertising is designed to change behaviour overnight. You see a bunch of ads for an iPhone, and maybe you’ll want an iPhone. You hear the Strawberry Mini Wheats jingle too many times, you might just buy a box if only to see what could be so awful. You ogle the Coors Light chicks long enough, you might forget the wretched taste of mass-produced beer.
But when you’re told not to immerse yourself in a destructive lifestyle that may or may not be enveloping you over the course of decades, you probably won’t listen to the best of ads.
In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan’s America told kids to "say no to drugs," the ad campaigns ran from brilliant to brutal. A preachy Nancy Reagan was an ineffective image. The frying egg from This Is Your Brain On Drugs was way more on the mark.
Of course, that frying egg only made the teenage me want to go to Perkins, as I imagined my "brain" with a side of bacon, some hash browns and a glass of orange juice.
But I digress.
An ad telling kids to stay out of gangs had damn well better be brilliant. And Manitoba’s ads simply are not.
For starters, there’s the language. I’m way too old and out of touch to know, but don’t you get "jumped in" to a street gang, not "beat in?"
Secondly, there’s the medium. Most people under 30 see all television programming — never mind the ads — as no better than spam. If a program is worth watching, you download it, record it or rent it. You don’t wait for it to be shoved in your face, unless it happens to be something you have no choice but to watch live, such as a hockey game.
The province may counter that Say No To Gangs is intended to go viral, that it’s supposed to find an Internet life of its own. But I couldn’t even find the clip on YouTube.
What I did find: A few dozen video versions of Birdhouse In Your Soul, that excellent 1990 ditty by They Might Be Giants.
In the end, I just couldn’t say no.