How the Ad Council Turned the PSA Into a Powerful Engine for Social Change

75 years of the most memorable messages in advertising

In February of 1942, the heads of America’s big ad agencies found themselves summoned to Washington, D.C. for a closed-door meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. With the attack on Pearl Harbor barely two months past, the United States was mobilizing for war. The men in pinstripe suits—among them James Webb Young of J. Walter Thompson—were too old to don uniforms, but that’s not what FDR had in mind anyway.

The president wanted advertising, and lots of it: Ads to sell war bonds, to get Americans to plant victory gardens, to recruit women to factory jobs, and to discourage careless talk about troop movements that might be overheard by Axis spies. Within weeks, the assembled executives formed the War Advertising Council and produced a striking poster. It said: Loose Lips Sink Ships.

Even if you know little about World War II or advertising history, chances are you’ve heard that slogan. And the fact that you have is a testament to the work of the War Advertising Council, which is now just the Ad Council. The nonprofit organization just turned 75 years old, and is as active as ever.

Of course, there’s no world war to fight anymore. Instead, since 1945, the Ad Council has directed its energies toward creating public service announcements to raising awareness for a plethora of important social issues.

“The Ad Council has been inspiring change and improving lives for 75 years,” said the group’s president and CEO Lisa Sherman. “The issues we tackle are a snapshot of the issues Americans are dealing with at the time—a reflection of our culture. In the 1950s we dealt with polio; in the ’60s, race relations and in the ’80s with AIDS. The issues we deal with evolve over time.”

ROI before it was trendy

One thing that hasn’t changed is the impact the work has had. The Ad Council is responsible for some of the most vital and memorable messages of the past four generations. Under the Ad Council’s auspices, Smokey Bear told us that only we could prevent forest fires; McGruff the Crime Dog invited us to take a bite out of crime; and Vince and Larry (better known as the Crash Test Dummies) encouraged us to fasten our seat belts. These characters are 73, 37 and 32 years old, respectively, but millions of Americans still recognize them, just as millions remember the Ad Council’s awareness-raising messages for the Peace Corps (“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”) and autism awareness (“Learn the Signs”).

“I remember each and every one of these,” said global brand and agency consultant Petur Workman, CEO of Workman Global. “They’re icons they’ve created. They embedded this memory in kids’ lives—do not get in a car with strangers, don’t play with matches, and none of it promoted any sort of brand. I can’t say anything that’s negative [about this work]—the production value is beautiful, the taglines they put together are well thought out. I’ve always appreciated the Ad Council. They need to continue to do these things.”

But the impact of these campaigns goes beyond memorable characters and catchy taglines. Long before “ROI” joined the ad industry’s vernacular, Ad Council work was returning the sort of numbers that most CMOs only dream of.

For example, when civil rights attorney Vernon Jordan sought to raise awareness of his United Negro College fund in 1971, the Ad Council (with a creative assist from Y&R) created “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” a stark, stirring and inspiring series of ads that yielded over $2 billion in donations, helped over 300,000 college graduates and changed the futures of countless of African Americans.

That same year, an actor named Espera Oscar DeCorti—better known as “Iron Eyes Cody”—paddled his canoe through a polluted, trash-strewn creek in an Ad Council commercial created by Marsteller. At the end, Cody turned his chiseled face toward the camera, showing a tear running down his right cheek. That face—and the “Keep America Beautiful” slogan that accompanied it—isn’t just one of the most famous TV spots ever made, it launched Earth Day, brought the environmental movement into the mainstream and eventually contributed to an 88 percent decrease in littering, according to the Ad Council’s research.

In 1983, few Americans thought twice about lifting a few at the local bar and then driving home. But when the Ad Council’s TV spot showing two beer steins colliding in slow motion to the soundtrack of an auto accident, attitudes changed. The concept of “designated drivers” appeared, alcohol-related traffic deaths dropped and the slogan “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” is now recognized by 90 percent of American adults.

Priceless advertising—and no invoices

The wonder behind all of this top-shelf work is that nobody makes money off it. After the Ad Council’s executive committee decides to work on a new campaign (it has 50 campaigns going, spread across the focus areas of education, health, safety and family/community), it approaches the private sector to create the campaign pro bono.

That might seem like a tough sell, but if you’re a creative, putting Ad Council work on your resume is a mark of considerable prestige, a fact that’s allowed the organization to sign up the best talent in the business. Bozell, DDB Worldwide, TBWA\Chiat\Day, Leo Burnett, GSD&M, MullenLowe Group and FCB—all have applied their time and creative energies to Ad Council initiatives.

“Creative teams love working on these issues because it’s a nice complement to other things they’re doing,” Sherman said. “If you feel passionate about it, you feel like you’re helping to change the world.”

Which, Workman adds, is a thing that many of today’s creatives forget they have the power to do—or aren’t permitted to do. Freedom from the profit motive “allows them to create something unique and not worry about the handcuffs of brand managers or CEOs talking about cost analysis, eyeballs and all those words we hear on a daily basis and are sick of hearing,” Workman said. “Do something for do’s sake. Do it because the message resonates with everybody and you’re not trying to sell something—you’re just telling. Brands today, even though they say they’re socially aware, it all boils down to what can you sell. We’re all trying to sell and get clicks and likes. This is creative that’s really intelligent.”

The complications of noble causes

It’s also an ongoing challenge. In a highly politicized landscape, there are issues that the Ad Council either can’t take on or must handle with great delicacy. (When it comes to firearms, for example, the organization focused on the safe storage of guns to protect kids, rather than wade into the morass of whether or not people should own guns.)

Getting its message out has become a more complicated endeavor, too. Back in the day (read: before the internet) the Ad Council asked the major TV networks to donate air time for its PSAs. And while that still happens—donated media in 2014 tallied to an astonishing $1.65 billion—the fragmented media landscape means that they’re still asking for space, but have a lot more of that to do.

“We have many new partners—platforms like Facebook, Google and Snapchat that can provide targeted [reach],” Sherman said. The Ad Council also works with influencers who create their own content for YouTube and Instagram. Messages in the authentic voices of their creators “connect more deeply than just a traditional [spot],” Sherman added.

Even so, few millennials shooting videos in their bedrooms are as likely to have the same impact that the Ad Council’s agency-created work has had, and continues to have.

While many problems that the organization has taken on have been largely remedied by changing times and repeated messaging (since the Crash Test Dummies appeared, for instance, seat belt use has risen from 21 percent to 79 percent) there are some social afflictions—xenophobia, racism—that persist. The post-9/11 spot “I am an American,” which reminded viewers that Americans come in all colors, creeds and religions, feels as timely and essential today as it did 15 years ago.

So does “Love Has No Labels,” which the Ad Council unveiled in February 2015 and has since become one of the most influential campaigns in memory. Created by R/GA, the effort began with an oversized X-ray screen set up on Santa Monica’s Third Street Promenade on Valentine’s Day. Couples embracing and kissing behind the screen appeared only as skeletons to the assembled crowd, which raised its eyebrows in surprise as the paramours walked into the open, revealing themselves to be gay, lesbian, multiracial, disabled, elderly—you name, it pretty much.

The ad, which has notched over 58 million views on YouTube, has since become the first PSA to win an Emmy in the outstanding commercials category and snowballed into a movement that’s more recently featured a spot by John Cena and a jumbotron “kiss cam”—a “symbol for unbiased love”—shot at the NFL Pro Bowl.

For Sherman, the campaign not only shows that the Ad Council is “staying true to its mission”—it’s possibly the strongest piece of evidence that PSAs can change the culture. Prior to “Love Has No Labels,” the Ad Council relied on pro bono work and donated airtime, but this time it won private-sector dollars. “That campaign was funded by corporate sponsors. We didn’t have corporate partners funding campaigns before,” she said. “These are companies who compete desperately [in the marketplace]: Coke and Pepsi, State Farm and Allstate, P&G and Unilever, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. But they all came together and buried the hatchet in the name of something more important than their individual bottom lines, and that’s diversity and inclusion.”

And if getting the largest brands in the world to put diversity before profits isn’t proof of the Ad Council’s impact, nothing is.