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A character(s) stranded on a Deserted Island (or a desert) builds a message with sticks and/or stones for a passing plane to see. It usually reads "HELP", although "SOS" is common as well.
Frequently parodied by the character writing a much longer message than necessary, mispelling a word, or having some other wacky problem.
This is Truth in Television, as any large and apparent ground-to-air signal can attract the attention of an aerial search. Many people are unaware that the international symbol is a clear X shape.
- In Axis Powers Hetalia, the trio write "SOS" on the beach of the Deserted Island they are stranded on.
- In one novel of Read or Die, Yomiko gets trapped on a desert island. There is a picture of on the beach with her rescue message. "Send Books!"
- Played for laughs in a Far Side cartoon, where the message says "HELF" and the passing pilot consequently decides it's a false alarm. Also, see above.
- In one Carl Barks one page Scrooge McDuck strip had Scrooge stranded on an small island, and "Help" spelled out on piece of paper hanging on a clothesline. When help doesn't arrive, he replaces the letters with money, and suddenly, a armada of all sorts of boats (including a kayak and a submarine amongst others) appear around the island.
- This Troper once read a comic where two guys do this; when they run out of stones, they use their bodies as letters - one being an L. It works.
- Played for laughs in the Monica's Gang story "Sand, Sea and Surprises" where Monica and Jimmy Five get stranded on what they think is a deserted island. At one point, while Monica looks for food, Jimmy Five decides to write a message on the sand with a few twigs... and ends up forming a Monica caricature.
- One Foxtrot arc has Roger take Peter and Jason on a Horrible Camping Trip / Macho Disaster Expedition. When he tells them to build a fire pit, he tells them they're doing it wrong, as the stones are in an S shape. The next bird's eye view panel shows they've written "SEND PIZZA".
- In Madagascar, the lion first builds a Statue of Liberty, but it burns down ("You fools!"), and later, "HELP," but the branches from P fall, forming "HELL."
- In 28 Days Later, the survivors form the word "HELLO" from sheets and curtains on the field next to their hideout. We see it first before they finish the O. They get rescued by Finns.
- Done again in 28 Weeks Later where we see American forces pressure-washing off a message on a roof which read "Alive in here!". They probably weren't.
- Dick Van Dyke does this at the end of "Lt. Robin Crusoe" as he is being chased by the irate islanders... Fortunately the pilot in the plane overhead rightly assumes him to be a non-native specifically because he is able to write HELP in the sand with a palm branch.
- The film, Cast Away.
- Played straight in Joe Haldeman's early Star Trek novel "Planet of Judgment". When Captain Kirk's survey party is trapped on a planet without means of communication, they lay out a series of symbols once used by stranded airmen to communicate with the Enterprise.
- The James Patterson novel Sail - a kid whose family is stuck on an island sticks a message in a bottle, which a big fish swallows. The fish is later caught and a search effort restarts.
- This has been a challenge in several seasons of Survivor.
- Lost - the episode "SOS," appropriately enough.
- The SOS sign was never completed. However, the discarded materials make a rather large sad smiley like this :(
- Played with on Friends. The gang is trapped at a rest stop somewhere in upstate New York and Joey writes "help" in sticks on the snow. Only he spells it "pleh" so the guys in the planes can read it.
- In part 2 of Little Britain Abroad, Lou spells out a large sign which reads "Help...we are in a bit of a kerfuffle."
- Gilligan's Island - Upon hearing a radio broadcast that a NASA capsule is crossing the south Pacific (presumably within eyeshot of their island), the castaways try writing "SOS" in burning logs to get their attention. As usual, Gilligan does something that angers the Skipper, and he chases Gilligan across the message, rolling the logs around and distorting the message. When the astronauts fly by, they see the message: "SOL", the name of the mission leader, and assume it's a "You're awesome!" message. Skipper punished Gilligan by making him write "SOS" a zillion times on a chalkboard until the Skipper felt he had enough.
- Hogan's Heroes - In one episode Hogan tricks Klink into calling a nighttime fallout rollcall. After all are accounted for and the men are allowed to be at ease, Klink lets the POWs have a smoke. What Klink doesnt know is that the men are arranged in the form of an arrow, the glowing cigerrettes showing an American bomber overhead the correct way to go for their target.
- I Dream of Jeannie - In the pilot, spacecapsule wrecked astronaut Tony Nelson makes one, inadvertantly using Jeannies bottle as part of the last S.
- The final M*A*S*H episode has a variant of this, when B.J. uses a bunch of rocks to tell Hawkeye "GOODBYE".
- In the original Survival Kids game (the series that went on to become Lost in Blue), the way to get the quickest ending was to build one of these on the beach. You'd then get rescued. (It is, of course, a long ways from the Best Ending, which you need to unlock New Game Plus mode--in which your character rescues the other child on the island, befriends them, the two of you escape on a Lost Technology ship, and grow up to get married.)
- In Futurama, Bender is one rock short of forming the word "Help". Zoom out to see his message is much longer than that.
- "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: I, BENDER, BID YOU HELLO! YOU DON'T KNOW ME, THOUGH YOU MAY HAVE HEARD OF ME, BUT THAT'S NOT THE POINT. LONG STORY SHORT... I NEED HELF"
- There's an episode of The Jetsons wherein George and the Space Cubs of Troop 54 get stranded in the wild untamed area of the moon, and Spacely's son fires off flares that read HEPL. George reads it aloud, and the kid, realizing his mistake, fires another flare that strikes out his typo and corrects the last two letters so it does say HELP when all is said and done.
- Hilariously parodied in an episode of Cow and Chicken where Cow and Boneless got stuck on the roof of Cow and Chicken's house. Cow spots a helicopter flying by and starts writing something with ripped out roof tiles... Which turns out to be "My cousin and I were playing catch but I tossed him too high, we got stuck on the roof and now we need [runs out of space]" The pilot reads all this, goes "Need what?" and distractedly crashes onto a tree.
- The Critic's parents were stranded on a South Pacific Island once; His father spelled out a message on the beach, which was acted upon by a Crazy Prepared rescue crew: "Need Gin."
- One episode of The Simpsons features a similar joke to the Futurama example mentioned above except with sharks.