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Red Cross merbabies

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red cross merbabies
Sea lore lovers were treated to a new use of the ancient merfolk myth during the summer of 1991 when the American Red Cross launched its "Merbabies" ad campaign to promote water safety. Suggesting that learning to swim is like being a fish in water, the billboard, magazine, and TV promotions showed young children sitting and swimming underwater with sparkling green fishtails.

The ad was created for the Red Cross by Bernard Owett of the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York. The topic of the ad was very close to Mr Owett since he remembered his concerns about his own children learning to swim. He wanted to emphasize in the ad that water can be both dangerous and pleasurable depending on one's familiarity with swimming. He decided to design an ad that would be disturbing without being threatening, focusing on the statistic that a child can drown in only two inches of water. Thus familiarity with water is important not just if one lives near oceans or pools, but in practically any location where there is water.

He chose the metaphor of merfolk because he thought that if we were born with gills and fins we would be as comfortable in the water as we are in the air. He thought the metaphor would be endearing and charming as well as offering a strong, eye-catching image. He recalls that as a boy on the west coast he had fantasies of being a merchild. He followed out his fantasies later in life by studying sea folklore and mythology. Those fantasies were realized in the ad with its fanciful fish, seaweed covered rocks, and beautiful colours.

Paula Walker put the commercial together in Los Angeles, where the ad was shot. The fishtail was designed by a dressmaker based on Mr Owetts' own cartoon sketches. The tails were lined with comfortable cotton, covered with oversized sequins, and had flippers made of stuffed and stitched cotton. The first costumes were too big and overwhelmed the children who wore them. Eventually a properly proportioned tail was created and used in the filming.

None of the filming was done underwater. Special lenses, gels, rear projections, and lighting were used to bring about the illusion of the merbabies being underwater. Two shots that seem to be of the merbaby actually swimming in the costume were created by placing the child on a glass turntable in front of a mirror reflecting underwater footage, and the whole scene was filmed through an aquarium.

Fifteen children, ages 9 to 28 months were initially used for the ad. Three refused to get into the costume, and three cried the while time they were in costume; thus nine children ended up on the film. Their parents were close by during the shoot to insure the child's sense of comfort and safety.

The accompanying music is a Ringo Starr song. It was chosen for its underwater imagery and childlike quality; "I'd like to be under the sea in an octopus's garden ...". Mr Owett thought the music had a delightfully wistful quality that would give a disarming atmosphere to the ad. It took three months to secure permission for use of the song from Ringo Star, Yoko Ono, and the others involved in the original recording.

The ad was conceived in spring 1990, filmed in October, and readied for release in January 1991. Sea lore lovers who have seen any version of the ad will agree that Mr Owett and his staff have captured the charm of the ancient mermyth and used it in a beautiful way to deliver an important message: Be careful in the water so that you can enjoy the water.

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