Australia has a long-held reputation as a country of beach bums. The national stereotype is one of sun-kissed youth with tousled hair, surfboards, and endless hours to goof around under the sun. And a new, viral public service announcement, “Set Yourself Free,” does nothing to contradict this image—at least until the bodies start piling up.
The commercial, released this week, shows two teenaged couples playing hooky for a day, shedding their school uniforms and climbing into a Volkswagen van. They drive to a pristine beach to wrestle in the waves while drinking beer. Life is good. And then one of the girls steps on a landmine—as one regularly does in Australia—and the breathy indie music is truncated by a sharp explosion and shower of gore. “This is what happens when you slack off,” the ad warns after her friends have been dispatched in a similar fashion. “Stay in school.”
As deterrents for skipping class go, severed body parts and a lingering mushroom cloud are pretty extreme. Could this gruesome video possibly be a real PSA? The end of the commercial claims that it’s “brought to you by” Learn for Life Foundation of Western Australia, described on the website as “a non-profit organisation promoting the importance of education for people of all ages.” If that sounds a little vague, well, so is the rest of the Learn for Life Foundation: The website features stock images of smiling people, and no contacts, explanations, or further details beyond the single video and a link to its directorial team, Henry & Aaron.
Henry Inglis and Aaron McCann are a filmmaking duo from Perth with a history of producing unsettling advertisements. They also happen to be comedians, if you didn’t get that “Set Yourself Free” was meant to be funny. McCann characterized their style as “violent with a WTF factor” when we spoke yesterday: “Two comedians can’t really do ‘normal’ and ‘safe’,” he said. He was cagey as to whether or not "Set Yourself Free" is an elaborate prank. The commercial was always intended to be educational, he said, though “in terms of the Foundation, we’d like to leave it open to interpretation. [It’s] hard to keep intrigue in the internet age.” It’s probably a good bet to assume that Inglis and McCann invented the Foundation for the sake of the joke.
Even if it wasn’t commissioned by a legitimate nonprofit, “Set Yourself Free” joins a small but growing canon of public service announcements from Down Under that are steeped in gallows humor. “Dumb Ways to Die”—a safety campaign designed for Metro Trains in Melbourne—won major industry awards, and recently passed 70 million views on YouTube. (It also spawned a strange gaming app where you can swat hungry piranhas as they try to eat a character’s private parts). For Australians, it seems, black comedy is the key to getting a message out—and, judging from the viral success of “Dumb Ways to Die” and “Set Yourself Free,” there may be something to that approach.