Confessional Poet PSAs on the Red Line


My commute starts with a bucolic walk down tree-lined suburban streets, where professional squirrels amble by on their way to Starbuck’s before their first therapy clients turn up. Then I take the Green Line-Riverside “D” Branch trolley–at the forefront of innovation when it was launched in the 50s–in to Park Street, where I trudge a few yards and transfer to the Red Line, an actual subway that goes past Mass General Hospital on the way to my stop at MIT. Whether it’s because Mass General is served by the Red Line or they just figure it is populated by people suffering from a whole spectrum of mental illnesses, the majority of in-car ads on the Red Line are calls for participants in various medical/clinical trials. Depression, post-traumatic stress, painful shyness, body image problems…all these conditions are sterotypically evoked, not with little funhouse mirrors to reflect back our own fellow straphangers’ insane membranes, but with stock photography depicting (usually) young women in various postures of despair or retreat from the world.

I got to thinking about the creative process behind these ads. These aren’t the slick Ad Council creations that tell us Dan Quayle’s mind is a terrible thing to waste. I picture an assistant communications director at MGH being tasked with churning out ten of these each week. She has a subscription to a stock photo website, the MBTA ad placement person on speed dial, and not a lot of time to get it done. Two minutes of googling for, say, “shy girl” images will reveal the startling pathologies that these health communicators must navigate…you’re basically split between hot teens in postures of debilitating, Demi Moore breakdown in St. Elmo’s Fire-style despair, and hot teens barely concealing their boobs with their hands because they are, um, so very shy.

I think given the circumstances these ads are not so appalling in their reliance upon images of female despair. But this is Boston, OK, the self-declared Hub and, not too long ago, the wellspring of a group of kickass poets whose self-declared mission was to get the most exacting details of their own sojourns through sexual and emotional hell on paper, or read aloud with cigarette waving to a rapt group of undergrads and divorcees. I’m talking about the Confessionals, baby, and so without further ado, let me try out a few revised public service announcements.

Robert Lowell. The daddy (to quote Sylvia) of them all. Who knows how many people might look up at this ad and think, “I’m not the only one who ties the car keys to my thigh. Maybe there is some help for me and that no-good bastard significant other of mine!”

Anne Sexton. She took the baton from Lowell and clocked the Brothers Grimm over the head with it. She is what Ani DiFranco is still working on becoming: a righteous babe. And her excoriating self-revelations, in lovely stanzas, are exactly what this town needs to wake people up to the fact that their lives are basically a big mess and people at social service organizations are waiting by the phone to help!

William Blake. He is the prophet whose cry echoes through the mid-century poets (at least a bit…OK he may be completely irrelevant but work with me here). And if you are an agency with a floral or baby or little lamby or chimneysweep-related mission…he could help you out, yo!

UPDATE: Just in time, a link to WWI and WWII-era anti-VD posters!


2 thoughts on “Confessional Poet PSAs on the Red Line

  1. next career…advertising! Love the mockups!

    Those WWII ads look a lot like the ever popular infographics that are making the rounds these days!

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