If you were watching television in New South Wales in 1998, you’ll know the ad.
It starts with “Tony” being interviewed in a police station. He’s been charged with drink-driving after killing a little girl at a zebra crossing. Later that night, he gets home to a house full of classic 80s and 90s decor, all brown vinyl and lino. The kitchen is cleaned up after the dinner he missed. His wife chastises him, and their small child wakes up to their fighting. “Go to bed, Jessica!” Tony says forcefully. Jessica flinches, holding her teddy bear, before jutting out her hip in defiance.
The then Roads and Transport Authority’s (RTA) ad was meant to be an emotional attempt to convey the myriad kinds of devastation that can be caused by driving under the influence of alcohol. But like “Not happy Jan” (Yellow Pages), “Oh Mr Hart, what a mess!” (Dupont Carpet), and “G-O-G-G-O, go-go mobile” (again, Yellow Pages), “Go to bed, Jessica” would be remembered not so much for its effectiveness as for that one distinctive line – which, contrary to its intent, many people found quite funny – becoming absorbed into cultural memory.
For the generation watching, who are now online, the ad lives on through that memorable line. If you’re between the ages of 30 and 40 in New South Wales, those four words mean a lot. They’re a joke in the pub. They’re a connector. They’re a shared experience.
They’ve been made into YouTube remixes, tributes and memes, but the line has become most powerful as a substitute for being tired of something, or telling someone to get lost. In fact, this article came about because my sister, cranky after watching the news, said to me: “I think it’s about time you go to bed, Jessica.” (My name is Melanie.) But what happened to the actual Jessica?
Jessica Cepeniuk (yes, her real name is Jessica) was the youngest of two children from Campbelltown in Sydney’s western buburbs when she played the character. By the time the ad came her way, she was a seasoned professional at the age of five.
“Mum had put me in with an agency. I did a lot of American ads, ads that weren’t really seen here, except for a Medibank Private one around the same time. My mum was a single parent, and she took us around the city when we had to do auditions,” Cepeniuk tells Guardian Australia.
After being cast in the RTA ad, the advertising company put up the young family in a hotel overnight.
“My family didn’t have much money growing up, so it was a really special experience. At the time my favourite food was corn, and I was really excited because at the hotel restaurant, I could eat all the corn that I wanted. We stayed in one room that had two beds in it and I was just jumping from one to the other, which is something that I was wanting to do at home. It was pretty exciting being able to do that.”
The day of the shoot everything was going to plan, except for the famous flinch.
The actor playing Jessica’s dad, Warwick Young, kept saying “Go to bed, Jessica!” without much reaction from Cepeniuk. She’d just stand there, defiant, with her teddy bear.
“The ad team met and spoke with Mum and asked ‘do you mind if we are a bit more full-on just to see what else we can get from her, just to make it a bit more powerful?’
“Mum said ‘Sure, do whatever you want.’ So what actually happened to get that shot is when he turned to me, he actually yelled ‘Shut up!’ – like he actually screamed at me. And that reaction is the one that they used. That reaction was what they wanted because I didn’t cry, or do anything like that. It wasn’t too full-on, I didn’t cry, so it’s a bit more realistic.”
Cepeniuk is pretty sure the little hand on the hip act of defiance after the flinch came from growing up with a single mother – she had no time for men admonishing her, even as a five year old.
“I think that if I’d grown up with a father figure, I probably wouldn’t have done that. It was like ‘You’re not my dad!’”
She also got to use her own teddy bear, and take the pyjamas home from the shoot. With the hotel, the corn, the teddy and the pyjamas, it was one of the best times Cepeniuk had on set.
That flinch would become imprinted in Australia’s cultural memory, though there was no way of knowing that at the time. Cepeniuk’s life went on as normal. She was teased at school a little, and recognised in shops, but didn’t realise its significance until a year or so later, in the car with her mother and sister.
“We drove past a wall that someone had graffitied ‘Go to bed Jessica’ on it.”
Robert Crawford, professor of advertising at RMIT, says the cut-through of these ads are as much about the period in which they aired, before broadcast television gave way to targeted online advertising and streaming, as the skill that went into creating them.
“Those big campaigns are still going to be there. They’re still going to be spoken about, but they’re not going to be seen by the same percentage of people. The pervasiveness of the television commercial is not there,” Crawford says.
Cepeniuk is 28 now, living in Hobart and working as a school teacher, after deciding to quit acting not long after the “Go to bed, Jessica!” ads. Every now and then she gets a royalty cheque for the ad, or tells a new friend she’s that Jessica, and she remembers the corn and jumping on the hotel beds, and smiles.
Source : https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2021/oct/16/go-to-bed-jessica-whatever-happened-to-the-little-girl-from-the-viral-nsw-ad1787