If you’ve listened to the radio, turned on the TV or seen any billboards, these tag lines are probably pretty familiar:
“Loose lips sink ships.”
“Only you can prevent forest fires.”
“A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
“Take a bite out of crime.”
They’re just a few of the many ads created by the Ad Council, a nonprofit organization that was founded in the 1940s by the leaders of the advertising industry and President Franklin Roosevelt.
Initially, the Ad Council was conceived of as a way to help get Americans through World War II. The advertising campaigns for buying war bonds and planting victory gardens were Ad Council ideas, as was the iconic “Rosie the Riveter” campaign.
The Rosie campaign encouraged women to go to work outside the home while men were off at war; it ultimately was responsible for getting 2 million women into the workforce.
Those campaigns worked so well that the program continued after the war and celebrates its 70th birthday on Saturday. Peggy Conlon, the president and CEO of the Ad Council, says the advertising and media industries provide pro bono creative work for the organization and donate about $1.5 billion a year in free ad space.
Conlon says the Ad Council has played an important role in getting people to act.
“Buckle their seat belt, pick up litter, adopt children,” she says. “There are many issues out there that we know public service can be very effective in moving the needle.”
In choosing which issues to address, she says the Ad Council tries to steer clear of anything that’s political or partisan or intended to influence legislation. The council’s executive committee has the final say in what the council gets involved in.
Ad campaigns often evolve over time. Conlon cites, for example, the drunken driving prevention ads that have been running for more than 30 years. That campaign, which started with “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk,” was successful in raising awareness of the problem and reducing the number of deaths from drunken driving.
Recently, though, the Ad Council noticed an increase in “buzzed” driving, and it modified the campaign. The new slogan reads, “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.”
Conlon defines the target audience for this campaign as young men between the ages of 21 and 30.
“We really have watched them,” she says. “If they are buzzed, they’ll make other plans, they’ll take a cab, they’ll ask a friend to drive them home.”
Advertising in general has become more pervasive, which raises the question of whether the Ad Council has trouble with people being more skeptical. But Conlon believes that the Ad Council has become a trusted brand.
“The messages themselves are pretty straightforward; they’re not … intended to have a commercial purpose,” she says. “I think people let their guard down a little and are more open to those kind of messages.”