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

75 years of the most memorable messages in advertising

Headshot of Robert Klara

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.

@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.