We have the "know-how" to do it. But success will depend on tenacity and teamwork, not just our talent.
The opportunity first opened up in 1995, when the Advertising Council took the radical step of committing nearly all its media might and messages to children's issues for a decade. The American Advertising Federation, representing 220 local advertising clubs, soon joined in this commitment and even agreed to work off of a common communications strategy.
It was an unprecedented coupling and the harbinger of a transformation in the way we do public service advertising.
To undergird the effort, the Ad Council began a series of groundbreaking research studies. The first probed into a question that has bedeviled advocates and academicians, politicians and pollsters alike: Why so many American adults seemed so apathetic about the plight of children.
Americans seemed all but inert in the face of the fact that the U.S. was raising a huge Dickensian underclass: 15 million children growing up impoverished; millions more shriveling from sheer neglect, vulnerable to every affliction on earth.
In the sad categories of dropouts and drug use, teen pregnancy, murder, suicide and abuse, the U.S. ranked at the bottom of the developed world -- and even below many "undeveloped" Balkan and Latin American nations. And the statistics got worse every year.
How could we let this happen?
The Ad Council research team, led by three brilliant volunteers, Jane Newman, Margaret Mark and Deborah Wadsworth of Public Agenda, a public opinion research company, exposed for the first time the barriers that blocked Americans from acting on the behalf of kids.
These barriers were mostly built on illusions: e.g., that the problem was predominantly a black and inner-city one; that the villains were "irresponsible parents"; and that the problem was so big and pervasive that people shrugged and said, "What can I do?"
AN ALL-AMERICAN PROBLEM
The fact is this is not a black or brown or white problem. It is an all-American problem, and most parents are struggling to raise good kids under stresses and pressures that would beat down the best of us.
It also turned out there was a lot "you" could do. For every problem a kid had, there were hundreds of good people and organizations already solving it -- mostly unknown, even to each other, and mostly without resources, except for their own imaginations.
The children's movement, just like public service advertising, suffered from being highly fractionated. The energy and talent were there to crack the problem, but the unifying force was not.
Yet here was work that advertising was made for: breaking down misconceptions and building up hope, and in doing so freeing millions of Americans to act on their own best instincts for kids.
Working with educators and advocates, certain fundamental truths emerged: Where children are given the care they need in their early years, and where parents are consistently helped to be better parents, a surprising amount of violence, drugs, crime and general crankiness goes away.
THE RIGHT START
It is so much easier, and cheaper, to get kids off to the right start than start them over when they have gone wrong.
The Ad Council began to reorganize its "accounts" to focus on these principles.
Meanwhile, Partnership for a Drug-Free America began moving in harmony with this strategy: focusing on early intervention and giving parents the resources to deal with the drug menace with their own kids.
And from time to time the broadcast and print media amplify these messages on their own in news, programming and their own PSAs.
There is evidence the public is getting the message. A massive study on children and families, initiated by the Ad Council and sponsored by Ronald McDonald House, shows the majority of American adults now think our No. 1 national priority ought to be getting kids off to the right start. And 75% say the gravest threat to our national security is the plight and problems of children.
SLOUCHING TOWARD CONGRESS
Politicians are catching the public's beat. Candidates lining up for 1998 and 2000 elections are hawking "early intervention." A heavy-duty childcare bill and "after school" program are slouching toward Congress to be born.
But there are dangers. The public's attention can wander, and then so will that of the politicians. Ours must not. If we keep our focus, we can go a long way to helping them keep theirs.
We must stick with the kids mission. With it, the advertising industry has its hands on the one lever that can make our society safer, saner and more civil.
Beyond the Ad Council, AAF and the Partnership, there is more than $2.5 billion in public service media being splayed over thousands of causes across America. The more of that media that is mustered behind the kids, the better off they will be.
FOCUSING THE MISSION
Focusing the mission has done wonders in making corporations smarter, quicker and more effective. It can do the same for public service.
Consolidations have made advertiser and media companies and agencies exponentially more productive. It can do the same for public service.
We must stick together. If all of this media might were better coordinated strategically, we could do more for kids and do it faster. Logic argues that the Ad Council, which has the best research and represents the media, advertisers and agencies, should take the lead in this work.
Children are simply the most important cause advertising could take on. And we're good at it. We know how to make ads about kids and for kids that lift people off their couches and into action.
So what can you do about kids these days?
Give whatever you can -- your time and talent, your media or money -- to those organizations that share the children's mission.
If we pull together, the question will no longer be, "What can we do about kids?" but "What can't we do?"
Mr. Kroll, the former chairman-CEO of Young & Rubicam, New York, was 1996-97 chairman of the Advertising Council.