Peggy Conlon on Using Advertising to Shape Culture

Former Ad Council Head Reflects on Digital Ads, Engagement and Smokey Bear

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Peggy Conlon
Peggy Conlon
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Digital advertising has been a "godsend" to the Ad Council's public service campaigns "because you really see who you're reaching and you can get specific feedback and measurement."

So says Peggy Conlon, who was president of the Ad Council for 15 years before retiring last year. "Digital is just made for Ad Council campaigns," Peggy told me prior to her induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame, "because what they intend to do is engage the target audience that you're talking to, get them to increase their awareness, consider changing their behaviors, and then we can actually track both self-reported behavioral change as well as website, social and all the things you can get great metrics on."

Back in the '60s and '70s, Peggy recounted, broadcast TV "played such a large role in educating people and we could see behavior changes over time, but it was awfully hard to drill down the way you can with digital media today."

Peggy said the Ad Council's success in broadcast TV "became much better at the local level." Network ads and PSAs can be covered by local promos or ads, she pointed out. "What we really look for is how to convince the local general manager that a campaign is really relevant to the community. … That's what the media companies want to know: Do my viewers, listeners, readers really care about this, and is it going to make a difference in my community?"

Sept. 11, 2001, gave the Ad Council "a new sense of mission," Peggy said. "We felt instantly that we were back on our World War II footing, and we felt a connection with our roots as an organization that we hadn't in modern times."

Peggy said "it was also really rewarding for us because everybody wanted to do something but there was nothing to do. We, on the other hand, had the opportunity to reach out to the industry and tell them to send us what they had and what they had done. We created compilation kits and pushed them out to all the media companies. It was a totally different model for us, but there was such a need for messaging around just what it means to be an American and how to keep yourself safe."

The Ad Council, which celebrates its 75th anniversary next year, started out during World War II as the War Advertising Council. Rosie the Riveter was not the council's work, much to the "complete shock" of the people who researched it later on, but Smokey Bear was its work -- not "Smokey the Bear," which was the name of a song back in the '60s.

"He was never Smokey the Bear. The people at the Forest Service say, 'It's not Mickey the Mouse. It's Mickey Mouse.' They're very sensitive about that."

Smokey Bear's famous line, "Only you can prevent forest fires," started out during the war because the government was concerned that the enemy would start major fires to divert the attention of the military, Peggy explained.

Ad Council campaigns "are all about personal engagement and personal responsibility," Peggy said. "There are many issues in the world, such as pollution, global warming and other really major initiatives that individuals can't necessarily change.

"It's frustrating for them. They'll say, 'OK, I get it. What can I do about it exactly?'"

Peggy said every Ad Council campaign is measured "very carefully for its impact and effectiveness. Frankly, if we don't feel that it's moving the needle, we'll walk from it. Because there's so many people putting in their volunteer time and donating media against it that we don't want to waste the effort."

What does the media want in an Ad Council campaign? Peggy said they look for two things: "They look for issues that they think their viewers or listeners care about. And they also look for really good creative. Because that creative spices up their program content and makes their product stickier."

One of the core tenets of good public service advertising is the "importance of the cause and how people can relate to it," Peggy said. "I'm not sure you can apply the same criteria to commercial advertising," she added, but good PSAs and focused general advertising are the same: "Understanding consumers and what their interests are, what the barriers to behavioral change or adoption are. You have to be very single-minded in your message, very clear. I think that those are all basic tenets of good creative."

Whether or not the Ad Council helped inspire companies to become more socially conscious, Peggy says it's benefited the council because of the relationships formed with marketers.

I asked Peggy why ad agencies give so much time to Ad Council work. She said agencies recognize that "it's a great retention tool for the best talent." And, she added, "it gives the creatives more freedom."

She said "it may be coincidental" to companies' increased agenda around public issues and public service, but within the last 10 years "the involvement, the engagement and the support" from major corporations has probably doubled. And she said it's really increased the participation at the chief global marketing officer level.

She said Marc Pritchard of Procter & Gamble told her he never sees a pitch reel that doesn't have an Ad Council campaign on it.