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 this ad for Greenies dog dental treats, a shipwrecked man tries to get the attention of a passing plane by waving both arms and spelling out "HELP" with large sticks. Unfortunately for him, his dog took a stick from the "P", making the pilot think he's just saying "HELLO" minus an "L". The latter says "Hello!" back, waves, and flies off.
- In Hetalia: Axis Powers, 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 her on the beach with her rescue message. "Send Books!"
- Of course, as a Paper Master, given enough reading material she could probably make herself a way off the island.
- In the first Full Metal Panic! story arc, Sousuke creates a large fire spelling 'A67 ALIVE' as Mithril's satellite is passing over the area so that his allies know that Angel (Kaname), Urzu 6 (Kurz), and Urzu 7 (Sousuke) are alive after being cut off from the extraction team. Tessa responds by sending Sousuke the Arbalest, which enables them to save themselves.
- Played for laughs in a The Far Side cartoon, where the message says "HELF" and the passing pilot consequently decides it's a false alarm.
- 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.
- 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.
Monica: You were going to write "help"!
- 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, Alex first builds a Statue of Liberty, but it burns down ("You maniac!"), 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 creates one out of coconuts when he gets to the island in Lt. Robin Crusoe, U.S.N.. Problem is, by the end (when he really needs it), the coconuts have been covered in sand, and 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 clearing coconuts spelling "HELP" in the sand with a palm branch.
- Yogi Bear and the Magical Flight of the Spruce Goose: Dread Baron and Mumbly write it at the island where the heroes meet them.
- A variation in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In the "Must there be a Superman?" montage, a family is shown sheltering on the roof of their house surrounded by rising floodwaters. Painted on the roof is a large "S" logo. Needless to say, Superman answers the call.
- 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.
- In The Martian Mark considers spelling out messages with rocks for the Mars-orbiting satellites to read as a last resort, in Morse code because dots and dashes are easier to make. After Pathfinder's radio is fried he does that.
- During the Korean War arc of The Corps novels, shot down airman Pick Pickering tries to signal for rescue by tromping out PP in a rice paddy followed by an arrow in whatever direction he's planning to travel that day every morning. This is noted by people looking at aerial recon photos, but before they can send a rescue party, he stumbles upon a column of NATO soldiers on the march and gets rescued by them.
- Use of Weapons. Cheradenine Zakalwe has been attacked and seriously wounded, and stumbles around apparently at random until it's revealed at the end of the chapter that he was spelling out a distress signal for the Culture spacecraft orbiting above.
- Doctor Who. While stranded at the start of the Twentieth Century, Yaz, Dan, and Professor Jericho leave one around the Great Wall of China for Karvanista who along with the Lupari fleet is protecting Earth in 2021. Karvanista sees the message but it only annoys him, as he doesn't have a time machine so what's he supposed to do about it?
- This has been a challenge in several seasons of Survivor.
- Lost - the episode "SOS," appropriately enough, Bernard gets frustrated that the other survivors have apparently given up and accepted their fate so he decides to build one of these signs. Bernard abandons the sign after his wife Rose reveals that being on the island has cured her terminal cancer, and if they leave she'll die within months.
- 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 cigarettes 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".
- As part of the tasks they had to complete in the "stranded on an island with nothing but duct tape" episode of Mythbusters, Adam and Jamie had to create a signal for help. They ended up with a huge SOS on the beach made of strips of duct tape held down with rocks.
- Averted in the 1985 Australian mini-series A Thousand Skies where the help message the crashed aviators write in the desert sand is a request for more cigarettes (as their crash made national headlines, anyone looking for them already knows they're in distress).
- Watchmen. Adrian Veidt does a particularly nasty version of this trope by killing hundreds of his Expendable Clones, using their bodies to spell out an appeal to be rescued on the surface of Europa that can be seen by a passing satellite.
- Played with in Ace Attorney Investigations: Miles Edgeworth when Edgeworth and Kay are trapped in the kidnapper's hideout. Examining the paint causes Kay to suggests they write "HELP" in giant letters with it. Edgeworth comments that with them being in a building no one would see it, causing Kay to then suggest they set the paint on fire, so that they cause someone to think a crazy arsonist is about and call the cops. Edgeworth just shoots down this suggestion with a silence.
- In Dead Island, one of the early sidequests is completing a "HELP" message spelled out of boxes, which was abandoned because the zombies attacked while they were building it. The same happens to you when you try it.
- One of the things you can choose to do in Dyscourse is helping Teddy build a driftwood SOS. When you get back to camp Steve asks if Teddy's sure he spelled it right.
- 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.)
- Bob's Burgers: Linda goes for a flying lesson in the "Seaplane!" episode and it turns out that the instructor likes to fake an emergency landing near a remote island then seduce his female students with a picnic of wine and cheese that just so happens to have. After the seaplane floats off, Linda makes a help message out of the wine bottles that he left from his previous visits.
Linda: Sheesh, this island's seen a lot of emergency landings.
- 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.
- Parodied in an episode of Arthur, when Brain and Binky are waiting to be picked up by their parents.
- A channel bumper for I Am Weasel featured Weasel and Baboon stranded on a deserted island; Weasel gets rescue by using black and white stones to form the Cartoon Network checkerboard logo.
- In the DuckTales (2017) episode "Whatever Happened to Della Duck?", Della, trapped on the Moon, writes a lenthy SOS message in scrap, but it gets destroyed by the Moon Mite. She has just enough scrap left to turn the surviving "S" into a "$", which she thinks should get Uncle Scrooge's attention.
- In 2015, a 63 year-old British tourist called Geoff Keys got lost in the Australian outback. He was found after a search helicopter spotted the message "HELP 2807 —>" (the latter parts was the date and an arrow pointing in the direction he was travelling) that Geoff had carved in into the sand.