Nearly two centuries later it was another history-making event -- World War II -- that would establish public service advertising as a distinct category and led to the formation of the Advertising Council in January 1942.
The Council's conceptual beginnings go back a few months earlier. Following the Depression, advertising was attacked because it wasn't producing anything, wasn't making money and wasn't providing jobs.
To dispel the industry's negative image, the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies called an unprecedented joint meeting in West Virginia, inviting the leadership of media associations and radio and print unions.
Paul West, president of the ANA and for many years treasurer of the Advertising Council, wrote in the letter of invitation, "The common cause . . . is survival."
The speeches were predictable defenses of advertising until James Webb Young of J. Walter Thompson spoke. Rather than lament the country's failure to appreciate advertising, Young challenged the audience by asking, "What will it profit us to win the battle of advertising and lose the battle of business?"
He also urged that advertising be used as a power to influence social change.
Young's 30-minute talk spawned the idea of the Ad Council. He envisioned the organization as having a powerful and positive effect on the lives of Americans. It would be financed and managed by business and based on freedom of speech.
Three weeks later, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the Ad Council's job challenge changed from defense of business to defense of the nation. In late December 1941, President Roosevelt and his aides at the Office of War Information called industry leaders Leo Burnett and Roy Larsen of Time to Washington and asked for help to persuade Americans to make the sacrifices necessary to gear up the nation for war.
Young's idea suddenly became a reality. In January 1942, the Advertising Council became the War Advertising Council.
The maligned outsiders from the advertising community became valued insiders and partners with the policymakers in Washington. Chester LaRoche, chairman of Young & Rubicam, became the first chairman of the Ad Council. The initial assignment, and the most popular public service campaign ever, was selling government war bonds.
Some 150 volunteer advertising campaigns helped sell $35 billion in war bonds, recruited 2 million "Rosie the Riveters" to work in factory jobs and encouraged women to join the Nurses Corps, the Army, Navy and Marines. Advertising promoted civilian blood drives that helped save thousands of lives.
Agencies created the campaigns and, initially, it was advertisers who ran them in their paid media schedules. National and local advertisers drew support from every corner of the country for drives to collect and conserve rubber, fats, metals, foods and other vital supplies. Ads encouraged victory gardens, and the soil was turned over in 20 million backyards. Lives were saved because civilians were told "a slip of the lip will sink a ship."
The war drew $1 billion in donated advertising to help forge a national sense of purpose. Advertising proved its worth in battle, but what about in peace?
Just before his death, President Roosevelt asked the Ad Council to carry on after the war. His successor, Harry Truman, encouraged the Ad Council to help form public attitudes on peacetime issues, such as sending care packages to help rebuild Europe.
In 1945, Young became the Ad Council's post-war chairman and the name reverted to the Advertising Council.
Theodore Repplier, who became the first president of the Ad Council in 1947, summed up the post-war feelings when he said, "War never stopped. Only the enemy has changed."
This has been a guiding principle ever since: Fight the nation's problems in matters where advertising can help.
When the troops came home, advertising turned to civilian concerns. The Ad Council helped returning enlisted men find jobs and buy houses.
A nation that had been deprived of cars, gasoline and tires took to the road as never before and highway safety became a priority. The Ad Council began its longtime association with this issue, first with the National Safety Council and then the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a partnership credited with saving some 600,000 lives over the last 20 years of the relationship.
Smokey Bear, one of the most recognized advertising icons, helped keep forests from being destroyed by fire. Ad council ads encouraged men, women and children to line up for inoculations against tuberculosis and polio. War bonds became savings bonds and continued to receive support as did the Red Cross blood drives. The Ad Council also fought communism and racial discrimination.
The Ad Council rode the wave of success and confidence with the rest of the country during the 1950s. During the turbulent '60s, with Bob Keim as its second president, the Ad Council carried on, ignoring politics as much as possible and avoiding partisanship at all costs.
Mental retardation, drugs, alcohol abuse and the Peace Corps were addressed. Highly effective and memorable campaigns included the stoic American Indian with the tear in his eye lamenting the pollution of the land and the United Negro College Fund campaign, made famous by the slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."
In the 1980s, Nancy Reagan promoted the "Just say no" anti-drug campaign that helped galvanize the advertising industry's unprecedented response to fighting drug use.
I became the third president of the Ad Council in 1987, fully aware that advertising mirrors the time and the people of an era. Know the ads, know the people.
Yet I was unprepared for the starkness of an America that needed to be protected largely from self-inflicted wounds. AIDS, drugs, educational failings, child abuse, teen pregnancy, absent fathers -- threats as lethal as any foreign enemy.
I was not disheartened. I knew these were issues where advertising could make a difference; not on its own, but in conjunction with other approaches.
Our commitment has led us to rethink the way the Ad Council operates. We have retooled our structure, incorporated comprehensive research programs and developed partnerships with the media and most important with the federal government.
The Ad Council is presently involved in one of the largest campaigns in its history, and certainly one of the most revolutionary -- defeating the drug menace threatening our children. In July, the Office of National Drug Control Policy unveiled a five-year program that includes the largest government-sponsored advertising campaign in history. It puts $195 million into this year's war on drugs as part of the government's first effort to use paid ads in its fight against drug use among children.
The program is scheduled to continue over the next five years for a total of $1 billion, a sum that will be matched by the media for a $2 billion total buy.
All of this is part of the Ad Council's most significant peacetime initiative, Commitment 2000. The purpose of this 10-year commitment, now in its fourth year, is to help all children have a better chance to achieve their full potential and, along the way, to enjoy more than a minimum of health, safety, love, friendship, respect and laughter.
Over the decades the Ad Council has fought totalitarianism and racism, saved lives, healed the environment and made life measurably better for all Americans. The advertising industry has done more for the public than any other industry. A boast, yes -- but one I believe we can support.