—Comedians help to bring awareness to apparent jokes turned real life threats—
By Jess Ruderman
“First day of school. Last day of your lives,” is the opening line of comedian Billy Eichner’s set in Sandy Hook Promise’s latest public service announcement.
It’s the same line the Perry Hall High School shooter posted on Facebook before entering the school with a shotgun and shooting a classmate in 2012.
The host of Billy on the Street is known for catching people off guard and, in the process, making them publicly uncomfortable, and his joke is initially met with laughter from the audience. That’s followed by a series of clips from other comedians including Wanda Sykes and Margaret Cho, all performing what appears to be a comedy routine.
Bit while the audience assumes the comedians are performing regular stand-up routines, it’s eventually revealed that what they thought were punchlines are actually real threats made by school shooters from across the country.
“Just Joking,” is designed to make people uncomfortable in order to highlight the importance of taking threats—that may initially seem like jokes—seriously. The message is simple: gun violence threats are not jokes.
The brutal humour in the PSA is intended to reach students, parents and educators, underscoring the signs everyone can look for in their own social circles, in text messages and social media posts, that can alert them to a potential threat.
“One of the main things that we hear when people choose not to say something when they see signs is that they thought that [the perpetrator] was kidding,” said Sandy Hook Promise’s chief operating officer, Dawn Lyons.
With this campaign, the organization has switched from showing what those warning signs of violence are, to trying to push people to act whenever they see those signs and make sure that they are not dismissing them as a joke, she said.
“It is that realistic approach that is resonating with people and the fact that these are not written lines, these are actual threats that came from real situations where potentially if somebody could have said something, lives would have been saved. That really hits home for people,” Lyons added.
The Connecticut-based nonprofit worked on the brief for a year-and-a-half with creative partner BBDO New York, which assisted in production of the video. The nonprofit has worked with the agency since its 2013 inception, across all of its PSAs.
Weber Shandwick is providing PR support. Sandy Hook Promise started working with the agency this spring. Media for the campaign has been donated by Netflix, NBCUniversal, Dentsu Media, and GroupM.
The comedians were filmed both in front of real studio audiences who were unaware of the nature of the stand-up, as well as smaller audiences and even no audiences at all. The main reaction was shock, which is what the organization looks for in all of its PSAs.
“Just Joking” comes on the heels of a record breaking number of school shootings in the U.S. this year, almost surpassing 500, with five mass shootings occurring in the first four days of September alone. In 2021, gun deaths hit a record high among children according to data released by the journal Pediatrics in August. Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among teens under 18.
The organization’s rapid response to the shootings plays a critical role in how they present these experiences to the public through public announcements.
The nonprofit hopes the video will encourage schools to bring in Sandy Hook Promise’s Know the Signs programs, which teach youth and adults how to prevent school violence, shootings and other harmful acts, at no cost. Programming has been implemented in more than 26,000 schools across the country, with 21 million nationwide participants, the nonprofit said in a statement.
At least 15 credible planned school shooting attacks and 185 attempts of violence with a weapon have been averted as a result, and more than 500 lives have been saved through crisis intervention, according to the organization.
“There are kids that are able to be home with their families because of work that we’re doing,” Lyons said. “Sometimes this problem can seem so big that we don’t want people to ever feel hopeless. That there are things that you can do, and that there are things to look for before these tragic acts of violence happen and they can do something about it.”
In addition to the “Just Joking” PSA, Sandy Hook Promise will be releasing radio, out-of-home, print, animated digital and static digital ads to spread awareness of the campaign’s message.
The nonprofit partnered with production company Smuggler and award-winning director Henry-Alex Rubin for the video.
Heading into the presidential election next year, Sandy Hook Promise will continue to spread awareness of the threats and signs of violence in schools, and will continue fighting for stricter legislation surrounding gun control, said Lyons.
“We have a holistic approach that we want to continue to pursue policy solutions with whoever is in office and so we have passed federal legislation with presidents of both parties,” Lyons said. “We want to continue that going forward and working with all elected officials to find bipartisan solutions that are going to help to solve this epidemic of violence.”
Newtown, Connecticut-based Sandy Hook Promise was established following the 2012 elementary school shooting in the town that led to the deaths of 26 people, including 20 children. Sandy Hook Promise’s past PSAs have won a combined 22 Cannes Lions awards.
A version of this story first appeared on PRWeek U.S. Sabrina Sanchez contributed to this story.