The Ad Council: 70 Years Of Good Advice

Feb 15, 2012
Originally published on February 15, 2012 1:31 pm

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."

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

If you don't mind, we're going to listen now to the tag lines for some famous ads. Let's see if you remember these.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENTS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Remember, only you can prevent forest fires.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Drinking and driving can kill a friendship.

BUS HOWARD: The United Negro College Fund: A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Lock your door, and take a bite out of crime.

INSKEEP: Those phrases all come to us courtesy of the Ad Council. The organization turns 70 this week. And we're going to talk about the campaigns that it has run during those 70 years with Peggy Conlon, who is president and CEO of the Ad Council.

Welcome to the program.

PEGGY CONLON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: I think some people may have heard the phrase Ad Council and have no idea what it is. What are you guys?

CONLON: We're a nonprofit organization that was founded, as you said, 70 years ago by the leaders of the advertising industry and President Roosevelt, initially, to get the country through World War II, with Rosie the Riveter and "Buy War Bonds," "Plant Victory Gardens." It worked so well that they continued it for the last seven decades. We're supported by the advertising and media industries, and it's run in donated media. We get about a billion-and-a-half dollars of donated media a year to deliver those wonderful messages to the American people.

INSKEEP: You said Rosie the Riveter. I think just about everybody has that image in their minds. And that was basically a poster campaign, encouraging women to go to work when the men were off at war? Is that right?

CONLON: That's right. And it was responsible for getting two million women into the workforce.

INSKEEP: That's an interesting example, because this is encouraging people to do something, encouraging people to change behavior. Why take that approach? Who wanted to take that approach, exactly?

CONLON: Well, there are many social issues that are important for our country, whether it's education, health, safety. And the Ad Council has played a very important role in getting people to do things: buckle their seat belt, pick up litter, adopt children. There's many, many issues out there that we know public service can be very effective in moving the needle.

INSKEEP: Who decides what issues Ad Council gets involved in?

CONLON: We are approached by many organizations. And we also approached those organizations ourselves if we see an issue that we think is really important to address. Ultimately, it's the executive committee of our board of directors that is the final body of approval.

INSKEEP: Ever had something that was controversial?

CONLON: We try very hard to stay away from issues that are political, partisan, intended to influence legislation. So no, I have to say that everybody really shakes their head in agreement when they hear an Ad Council campaign.

INSKEEP: Can you give me an idea of how an ad has evolved? One that you've had experience with, perhaps.

CONLON: Well, I think a great example is our drunk driving prevention work that we've been doing with the Department of Transportation for over 30 years. Drunk driving started out with "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk," and "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" became an iconic campaign and saved hundreds of thousands of lives. But we also noticed a great increase in young people driving what they called buzzed. So the new slogan is, "Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving." And we're making tremendous progress with that message.

INSKEEP: How do you measure the progress?

CONLON: We measure every single campaign. We do benchmark studies in terms of awareness. And with that particular campaign, the target audience is young men, like, 21 to 30. And we really have watched them. If they are buzzed, they'll make other plans. They'll take a cab. They'll ask a friend to drive them home.

INSKEEP: One other thing: As there is more and more advertising and people become more and more cynical about corporate messages, does it get a little harder? Is there a degree of resistance or of turning out of your messages that you have to deal with?

CONLON: You know, I have to say I think one thing that the Ad Council has accomplished over the last 70 years is to become a trusted brand. And our research shows that when people see an ad that carries the Ad Council brand, there's a level of trust that they have that I don't think they will have with every other advertising that's out there. And also, the message themselves are pretty straightforward. They're not something that our intended to have a commercial purpose, and I think people let their guard down a little and are more open to those kind of messages.

INSKEEP: Peggy Conlon of the Ad Council, congratulations on 70 years for your organization.

CONLON: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.