Sarah McLachlan's PSA: Angels, cats & dogs
Sarah McLachlan’s 2 Minutes for the Animals
Few would argue that the world in 2006 was a very different place than it is today. Original programming streamed over the internet didn’t exist.
dial up sound
Dial up just wasn’t there yet. But cable stations had found a permanent home in people’s lives - creating their own programming and showing reruns of beloved classics.
Cable was a good place in 2006… and then a Moment in TV Herstory happened.
Or I should say, it happened on many occasions - many minutes - for a number of years.
In that window of time when the economy shook with intensity that was unsustainable but we hadn’t fathomed what a Great Recession would look like, when Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness” that referred to the lack of veracity found in then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld about his and other administration officials’ roles in alleged abuses committed at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. We looked at power differently - without the jaded skepticism we have today. The middle class hadn’t evaporated.
And so it was in 2006 that Sarah McLachlan asked us if we’ll be angels.
Advanced TV Herstory has recounted careers that’ve lasted decades and TV series that ran for a dozen seasons. Today, we’ll revisit the 2 minute long infomercial - PSA, the song itself - which was released 20 years ago - and the artist who wrote and performed it and then asked us to be angels, the PSA’s impact and the controversy that ensued.
Our federal airwaves - broadcast television and cable - are governed by the Federal Communications Commission - the FCC. TV station owners can jeopardize their licenses for a host of violations. The FCC’s authority usually only gets discussed when things like Janet Jackson’s wardrobe malfunction occurs - accidental or intentional - that’s not for me to decide - in front of millions of viewers during “family hour” or early evening Super Bowl halftime. Violate standards and expect to pay a huge fine to the FCC.
In addition to monitoring standards, the FCC tracks every TV station’s commitment to public service, educational and community programming. An infomercial that promotes the wonders of a line of kitchen gadgets is just paid programming - no different than a TV show. An infomercial with video of starving villagers in Africa and how you can help - - that’s public service. Air time afforded to a recognized not-for-profit organization at little or no cost.
Big name celebrities will occasionally do PSA’s, but none has ever achieved the impact that Sarah McLachlan’s work for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - the ASPCA did in 2006 and subsequent years.
For 2 minutes, she spoke of the national epidemic of abandoned and abused animals. Viewers watched heart-wrenching photos of cats and dogs providing evidence of malnourishment, physical harm, straight out neglect. Remember, this was about the time that American society as a whole had to weigh in on pitbull fighting - as though the activity could be anything but horrific!
Sarah McLachlan in a calm, measured, somber voice with her then 10 year old song, Angel, playing in the background. Everybody knew about the ASPCA - it was a century-old respected non-profit. No one knew so many animals were in need.
voice over plea
And everyone sort of knew who Sarah McLachlan was. The song from the PSA “Angel” made its way up the Billboard Charts of 1999. And it was in 1996, when the song debuted that McLachlan and her peers from an incredible singer/songwriter class of women produced Lilith Fair - doing what big touring festival producers wouldn’t do - feature women singers one after another.
Music festivals still promote line-ups that scream gender disparity. Hmmm...Haven’t we learned from 2017 in movie box office results that women can and do deliver?
So yes, the song was a radio favorite by the late 90s and was featured in a movie. Its meaning isn’t religious. In interviews, McLachlan freely shares it’s about the heroin overdose death of a member of the Smashing Pumpkins. She’s stated that she could relate to the sense of despair and hopelessness that might lead someone to heroin. To be clear, McLachlan says she’s known misery, but not heroin.
She said that the song is about "trying not to take responsibility for other people's problems and trying to love yourself at the same time.”
So lo and behold, the emerging Canadian talent who has since been honored with the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and a place in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame was contacted by a friend of hers who served on the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Vancouver.
According to a 2008 New York Times article on, the ASPCA had been working with a Canadian firm that connects celebrities to causes to build awareness and fundraise. The firm had previously found actors who would do PSA’s for the animal group. This board member’s outreach to McLachlan changed the face of fundraising.
Today, the PSA is simply known as “The Ad.” Early donations made upon the PSA’s airing then enabled the New York-based non-profit to buy time on bigger networks, in prime time.
McLachlan went on to tell the Charlotte Observer “I felt like a fraud, because I just did this little commercial. I love animals as much as the next person, but if I really wanted to attach myself to something, it would be kids and education.”
There’s a lot to think about just with that statement. While she also told the Charlotte Observer that “when you attach a piece of music to something - it’s sort of an innocent thing,” it’s a reminder that the power of storytelling in the hands of a producer - big league or small agency. Two minutes of a deeply moving song, an earnest singer/songwriter and compelling pictures were enough, in 2006, 2007 and a few subsequent years to raise $30 million dollars for the ASPCA.
That’s huge. And sure more than anyone dreamed could come from the effort.
The next chapter in this PSA’s story is what power that $30 million held for the organization and what I believe was a halo effect for rescue animals in general.
So from the get go, the McLachlan PSA brought in the dough. It bankrolled ad buys to create national exposure for a non-profit that sounded national.
There’s the A - SPCA and maybe what some people didn’t know is that there are SPCA’s in states and regions throughout North America.
So did the ad that went national, that brought in small dollar donations from throughout the world - did it do so at the expense of those smaller organizations? I can only imagine that in a short period of time, the ASPCA’s finance office was processing donations hand over fist. Did they have a strategy to roll out proceeds to the loose network that extended into American Samoa, Puerto Rico and - I’m still not sure about the Canadian component?
The ad launched in late 2006 - I think - and began an aggressive airing in 2007 and 2008. Even by 2008, it was parodied and a popular rant among comedians. It was acceptable to find the 2 minutes “over the top.” But clearly, it moved a lot of people to act.
And act they did. So the amount of $30 million gets used as the amount raised through the PSA. As many years have passed and the ASPCA archives only its recent annual financial records on its website, we don’t know how much of the $30 million was funneled back into buying ad time, how much has gone into an endowment on which the organization could draw interest.
By 2011, state organizations - SPCAs as well as Humane Societies were wondering about those decisions as well. If the money is getting raised through nationally aired commercials, contributions leave the state, but was that what the donor intended?
The Los Angeles CBS TV affiliate reported in May 2011 that the Humane Society of California filed a complaint with the state’s attorney general about the national organization’s redistribution formula. Massachusetts and New Jersey organizations also complained in 2011 that the funding formula back into their states was likely not reflective of the dollars raised from their residents.
While it might seem that a discussion about national fundraising and regional or local needs falls far outside the realm of Advanced TV Herstory - let me explain this. Sarah McLachlan is a singer. She volunteered her time to an organization and as a result of a brilliant composition of visual and audio haunts, it struck a nerve in this country.
What was and is the end game for a non-profit organization? Don’t all animal shelters share roughly the same mission. Would there have been any way for California - yes, one of the largest states with a wealthy compassionate population - that the Humane Society of California to raise the dollars that were sent to the national organization? It seems unlikely, or they would have already done it.
I believe McLachlan’s work raised considerably more than $30 million and I believe it raised awareness. While I am not one to respond to televised appeals for funds, I do send checks to local organizations, I do sponsor people participating in 5 and 10k or and donate supplies for use at my local shelter. And even though it’s been many years since that PSA or commercial aired on TV, the images are seared in my memory. They prompt me to act -even today.
In addition to her work for the ASPCA, McLachlan has contributed time and political voice to countless other causes. If you’re at your gym working out on a Sunday morning, chances are good some cable channel is showing an infomercial for a famine relief organization - Alyssa Milano or Sally Struthers may be the celebrity spokesperson.
Causes like Stand Up to Cancer and fundraisers for relief following domestic disasters like 9/11 and Katrina bring out the best in celebrities, raising fast money that should be collected by only organizations of highest integrity. With good intentions, everyone wants to be a hero.
So it’s with a sense of irony that we revisit McLachlan’s quote to the Charlotte Observer, I love animals as much as the next person, but if I really wanted to attach myself to something, it would be kids and education.
Though we see the challenges becoming greater with each passing year - multi-generational poverty, achievement gaps, poor nutrition, abuse - no one want to be a hero for kids and education. Not even the people elected to state and national office.
I only know that women need all the sustenance and support they can get. We’re outnumbered and out-resourced every day on TV. Our voices are marginalized or dismissed on news analysis panels. Reports indicate that sports coverage of women athletes has become more not less sexist and racist.
We don’t have an hour, let alone two full days of coverage across numerous channels every week, covering the actions of women in and of TV. Picture this… Two or three smart women sitting at the desk with screens and a telestrator. An hour dedicated to breaking down the reactions of Anita Hill’s testimony in 1991 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Statistics, body language and context provided by Professor Hill herself.
Or an hour picking up where FX’s hit mini-series Feud – the one about the life-long competition between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis – left off. Give yourself a minute and think about the ways the media – from teen magazines to TMZ – feed on fake news that normalizes toxic relationships among women. Where can women go to have THAT kind of analysis and understanding?
Until such time as that sort of show reaches TV, rest assured you’ll find it here at Advanced TV Herstory. Subscribe on Google Play, iTunes and Otto Radio. Play it directly on Player FM, Libsyn or our podcast website – www.tvherstory.com. Your recommendations mean the world to me and helping someone – a new listener - master the easiest way for them to listen. It’s the greatest compliment. <sigh> If women ran the podcasting world…
Our Twitter handle is AT TVHerstory, our email email@example.com. It’s never been more important for women and girls to see themselves on TV - all colors, shapes and interests we experience in our lives. The only way this will happen is for women to reclaim our status. We need to band together to educate, celebrate and fortify one another. Be a part of this important conversation!
This is why I podcast. I’m your host Cynthia Bemis Abrams