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BOB GARFIELD'S AD REVIEW;POWER OF AD COUNCIL EFFORT LIES IN NUMBER

By Published on .

The latest in national public service initiatives: a campaign for America's children.

Now there's a radical position to stake out. This is like coming out in support of gravity; who precisely is against it? Yet a coalition led by the Advertising Council, the Benton Foundation, AT&T Corp. and Young & Rubicam says it'll seek to generate $200 million in donated media to flog the cause. The anti-children lobby, no doubt, quakes at the thought.

But wait.

While at first glance the campaign called "Whose side are you on?" certainly seems to be a $200 million coal barge to Newcastle, upon further reflection it is revealed to be nothing of the sort. It may instead be a powerful initiative, that rare bit of public service advertising that effects change from the very start.

No thanks to the copy, particularly, because that is quite ordinary ("An angry man takes to the street again to take it back from pushers and gangs, and make it safe for his 4-year-old. Whose side are you on?") Nor is there much to be said for the slogan, which is actually quite caustic and accusatory.

If you aren't part of the solution, it suggests, you are a part of the problem.

But if this campaign challenges the audience more than some, it also provides a means to answer the challenge.

The ads focus on urban violence, defunded schools, drug-infested neighborhoods in ways that are neither fresh nor especially striking, but then they do something most striking: They issue a toll-free phone number-(888) 544-KIDS-leading callers to specific information on hundreds of specific programs and opportunities for citizen action in their own communities. From neighborhood watches to volunteering in schools to theater groups.

Historically, PSAs have been extremely successful at defining a problem, sometimes dramatically, sometimes unforgettably. Pollution. Violence. Drug abuse. Forest fires. Often enough, they propose some sort of solution. Don't litter. Don't shoot people.

Occasionally they even offer a positive solution. Give blood. Wear a condom. Be a Big Brother.

And if you can keep it all straight, if your reaction to the agglomeration of such appeals isn't to buy recycled condoms from drug dealers and set fire to a Big Brother, maybe some of these messages have their impact.

Most of the time, though, let's face it, the damn things are just depressing. You're watching TV, and at the commercial break, just when you think that you're going to see talking cars or adorable kittens or super-slow-motion images of women tossing their hair, on comes some gritty b&w film about spousal abuse.

And, no, you hadn't been thinking about spousal abuse. And, yes, the spot raises your spousal-abuse consciousness, and wouldn't you, if you could, just snap your fingers to end spousal abuse, but, really, what the hell can you do about spousal abuse? Nothing. Not one damn thing.

Spot after well-meaning spot comes on, raising awareness till you're about ready to slash your wrists at the horrors of the world, and at your own sorry impotence. Junkies are destroying their lives. Animals are being euthanized. Oceans are being despoiled. And you are powerless to help.

But what if you aren't powerless? What if for once you can be part of the solution, a solution that begins just one phone call away? With all due gravity, that is a force to be reckoned with.

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