Obama, Ad Council should unify message

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Our country—and the entire world—finds itself in the biggest economic mess since the Great Depression, and we seem to be sinking deeper into the morass. Fear grips us all. The free flow of money and credit have been frozen to a standstill. Americans are desperate for leadership; that's why we elected Barack Obama. The president-elect's most crucial job is to restore confidence among business people, the financial community and consumers that “we're on a plan for an economic recovery,” as he put it late last month. He's got to get everyone involved in solving the problem—because everyone helped create it. Just like after 9/11, Americans want to help in any way they can. Not only are their livelihoods at stake, but they want to feel they're a part of the solution. The ad industry has always played a big part in helping new administrations communicate important messages to the American people. After 9/11, for instance, the Ad Council produced two spots featuring Laura Bush encouraging parents to talk to their kids about the terrorist attacks. In response to the tsunami tragedy in 2005, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined with the Ad Council to encourage financial support. The two also came together after Hurricane Katrina. Peggy Conlon, president of the Ad Council, said the council has always worked with new administrations as soon as they come in. And the same, I'm sure, will be true with the Obama administration. But the big difference with the incoming administration is that it has established its own very active Internet database of 3 million people to get the word out to precisely the audience most likely to respond and take action. Ad Council messages, on the other hand, run whenever and wherever the media have unused time or pages, although it set up an aggregated Web site for USA Freedom Corps for people to find opportunities to volunteer. Since about half of the Ad Council's 50 or so campaigns are sponsored by federal agencies, the messages don't have a unified theme. The Obama people will most likely use their database to get out his message of change. Since the election, Mr. Obama has announced a huge public works program to stimulate the economy and shore up our crumbling infrastructure. He said, “We'll put people back to work rebuilding roads and bridges, modernizing schools that are failing our children, and building wind farms and solar panels, fuel-efficient cars and the alternative energy technologies that can free us from our dependence on foreign oil and keep our economy competitive.” In the old days, a secretary in charge of one of each of the areas would want his or her own PSA campaign, and the Ad Council would comply. The president-elect talked about getting “more bang for the buck” by going over the federal budget “page by page and line by line,” and from an ad standpoint, the new administration could get more bang for its buck by unifying his disparate plans under the powerful umbrella of change. David Bell, co-chairman of the council's advisory committee on public issues, and a former chairman, sees the opportunity for the administration “to connect with the Ad Council in a very powerful way” to focus the president-elect's message of change. He called it a “tipping point” in the council's relationship with the government, because up to now there hasn't been a unified message. “Obama's got the ability to mobilize our industry to create the kind of change that he was elected to accomplish and what specific roles” each of us can play, he said. So rather than running a series of one-off campaigns, the Ad Council would be free to create a “unified and cohesive connected message” built around what brought President-elect Obama to power. Rance Crain is president of Crain Communications Inc., publisher of BtoB and Advertising Age, as well as other editorial properties. This column originally appeared in the Dec. 1 issue of Advertising Age. Mr. Crain can be reached at
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