(Pictured: silent film stars Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin appear at a Liberty Loan drive during World War I.)
If you are of a certain age, you remember savings bonds. You may have owned one, or been given one as a gift. A savings bond was essentially a loan of money from a purchasing citizen (your grandmother, for example) to the federal government. Upon maturity, the bond could be cashed in for the amount of the principal plus interest. This kind of citizen funding had a long history in America, going back to the Revolution and the Civil War.
Sales of bonds during the world wars were frequently promoted by celebrities, especially movie stars. In the postwar era, without the urgency of a war to spark sales, the government continued to rely on celebrities to create interest, although these latter-day endorsements were of a somewhat different sort. Mr. Ed, Leave It to Beaver, and Father Knows Best produced special episodes designed to promote bond sales. They were not intended for broadcast; they were more likely to be shown at school assemblies and other civic presentations. They were usually short, although Father Knows Best did a full-length episode in which the Andersons subject their kids to 24 hours under totalitarian rule designed to show them the importance of investing in freedom, or something like that.
As the 1980s began, the American economy, struggling with the oil shocks and the end of the post-World War II economic boom, was in turmoil amid inflation and budget deficits. And so the U.S. government started promoting savings bond sales again. As in the 1950s and early 60s, several popular sitcoms produced special short episodes encouraging people to buy bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, in which a portion of your paycheck was deducted to buy bonds. Cheers, Taxi, Benson, and WKRP in Cincinnati all made such episodes.
The WKRP episode, titled “A Sure Thing,” is dated 1980; “Uncle Sam Malone” is dated 1983. Where the bond drives during the World Wars stressed the patriotic aspects of buying them, the focus was now entirely on what buying bonds could do for you. The basic premise of each episode is largely the same: one or more characters is skeptical about buying bonds through the Payroll Savings Plan, but the rest of the cast persuades them of its awesomeness. (In the Cheers episode, Diane and Carla are skeptics; at WKRP, it’s Herb and Johnny.) The Cheers episode is actually funny, or at least it benefits from the presence of a live audience (or a laugh track). In the WKRP episode, the jokes, such as they are, fall flat, especially without the benefit of audience laughter. Both episodes require a lot of exposition; the Cheers episode leavens it with jokes, but the WKRP episode drones on and on. The WKRP episode ends with Johnny Fever in the studio playing “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays. One online writer speculates that permission for the song must have cost a bundle; I wonder if it was maybe a public-service freebie, just like the rest of the production.
My usual half-assed research process has not uncovered the Taxi or Benson episodes online. This kind of long-form public service announcement soon fell out of fashion, although the casts of television programs would continue to make shorter PSAs for various causes now and then, and still do, occasionally.
You can still buy savings bonds today, although you can’t tuck them into a grandchild’s birthday card. Paper bonds were discontinued in 2012; they’re entirely digital now. When the government can run on deficit spending forever, borrowing money directly from citizens who give money explicitly for that purpose is superfluous. The Payroll Savings Plan still exists too, but if you have a 401K, you’re probably not interested. Diane Chambers was excited about a seven-percent rate of return; series EE bonds issued between now and April 2022 are guaranteed to double in value after 30 years, but the annual interest rate is one-tenth of one percent, so if you cash out before then, you’ll get practically nothing.
The Internet may have poisoned discourse and made many of our fellow citizens functionally insane, but it has also helped preserve this sort of ephemera to remember. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.