Nerd Factor: PSA in the Brain

By Michael Robinson ~ PhD

Schoolhouse Rock' On Disney+: Still The Best Way To Teach Kids History
School House Rock Logo. Image from

Recently, I learned about an assignment in my son’s civics class. He must memorize the Preamble to the Constitution.  “I can’t say it,” I said, “I can only sing it.” In fact, the very second that he mentioned the subject, the song had popped unbidden into my head. It was another example of a highly successful earworm from the good people who made School House Rock! 

Back in my childhood, Saturday morning television belonged to kids. We could not wait to watch hours of cartoons and live-action shows. Peppered in among the programs were a number of public service announcements, small segments designed to help young people learn important information and demonstrate that the networks were not just money-grubbing entities trying to lure us to commercials for toys and cereal. I am always amazed at how deeply some of those items are buried in my brain. 

“The Preamble” is not one of School House Rock!’s best tunes. It eschews the more upbeat jazzy sounds of “Conjunction Junction” or manic frenzy of “Ready or Not Here I Come” in favor of a folksier solemnity. It works though. That thing is etched so deeply into my brain that I have to work hard not to sing the Preamble.

Of course, nothing truly surpasses the epic that is “I’m Just a Bill.” That particular number once helped me on a civics test back in the day. 

School House Rock! songs are not the only bits that have made it into my noggin. Some television shows had their own helpful segments built into their programming. I have never met a strange dog without immediately thinking of Wonder Woman’s sound and cautious advice from a Superfriends segment. Mutt, the dog handler for G.I. Joe, had similar suggestions about a decade later. Two independent sources thus confirmed this valuable canine interaction protocol for me. 

Due to repetition, even characters I despised somehow reached me with their messages. There are, for example, few characters as instantly off putting as Timer. Describing him is a bit challenging because he has no clear real world analog. Timer is some kind of bipedal entity, with long skinny appendages stretching out from a round central mass. Timer’s face seems almost villainous with a long mishappen nose and toothy grin. He wears an orange top hat and bow tie for effect. Timer is yellow in shade, the color of say an unhealthy lemon or a wound or spot just beginning to get infected. His voice is nasal and screechy. In any other cartoon Timer would chase children and try to harm them. For some reason this repellant being was charged with helping kids, perhaps as some restitution for some earlier heinous crime.

Yet that loathsome creature got into my head too, such is the power of constant repetition. Timer’s segments generally had to do with health and nutrition. He would often suggest good snacks for kids. In “I Hanker Fer A Hunk O Cheese,” Timer takes on a cowboy persona to promote cheese as a healthy afternoon snack option. And as much as I hate to admit it, when I grab a small cheese snack it really is “a winner and yet won’t spoil my dinner.”

I just cannot stand Timer, but his propaganda worked on me.  

In fact, on the very same day my son mentioned his civics assignment, when my wife complimented me on a healthy cheese snack choice, I begrudgingly confessed that it wasn’t me. It was all Timer’s idea. 

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