Y&R Breaks United Way Effort

United Way of America has turned to Young & Rubicam to prepare public service spots for its National Football League ad campaign, which launched Sunday during the NFL season’s opening games.

The 14 spots by Y&R’s New York office represent a new branding effort and mark the first time the charity has gone to a Madison Avenue shop. Previously, the United Way created ads in-house or through an outside production company.

“We felt it was time for a change,” said United Way representative Anthony DeCristofaro.

The pro bono job also attracted Arnold Communications in Boston, Spike/DDB in New York and The Martin Agency in Richmond, Va., during an open bidding process last year. “We went to 50 agencies that had to have experience working with celebrity or sports talent,” DeCristofaro said.

Y&R has shifted the focus from sappy testimonials to snappier, playful and humorous situations that poke fun at the players.

In one PSA, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Tony Gonzalez is seen serving meals at a community center. An announcer says, “Tony has good hands. The kitchen staff knows this.” Suddenly, a loaf of bread, a jar of mayonnaise and several tomatoes come whizzing at Gonzalez, who quickly fumbles the items one by one. At the end of the spot, an egg catches him in the back of the neck.

The tag, “Caring. Community by community,” then appears with the NFL and United Way logos.

“The United Way needed to differentiate themselves. … People knew who they were, but they were a little old and stodgy,” said Marianne Raphael, a Y&R account director. “We wanted to give these ads a real personality.”

Twelve of the 14 commercials feature leading NFL players and one coach. The ads will air on ABC, CBS, Fox and ESPN through the entire NFL season. The donated media time will amount to about $60 million.

The United Way says its relationship with the NFL, begun 25 years ago, is the longest-running public-service partnership in the U.S.