Ad Council at 60--facing a crossroads

By Published on .

The Advertising Council marks its 60th anniversary under circumstances strikingly similar to those in which it was born--a premeditated, unprovoked foreign invasion that turned America into a warrior nation.

But there all similarities end.

In 1942, America mobilized for total war on two fronts. Car manufacturing stopped. Meat was rationed. Tires became precious. Women manned production lines. Taxpayers filed their "Individual Victory Tax Return." A-cards made gasoline worth its weight in Courvoisier cognac. And advertising was drafted for the duration.

Now, as the Ad Council looks forward from 60, it sees no mission to match the challenge and cohesion of World War II, no common cause waiting to be dramatized. Like most Americans, it stands primed for action and ready to march, but it must decide what action and what goal.

It's only the latest in a long series of events, which over the last 30 some years have challenged the Council's mission, confused its motives and blurred its distinctions in the public mind because of such public service producers as Partnership for a Drug-Free America, whose work the Council does not create. Common causes now seem rare. In 1942, a Council ad properly reflected American hate of a demonic Japan, proving the wisdom of essayist Eric Hoffer's observation that wars can be fought without a god but never without a devil. By contrast, in 2001 the Council asked, in conjunction with the Arab American Institute, "Will hate bring back the innocent?"

Perhaps because it has embraced such a long procession of generally unimpeachable purposes, the Ad Council has come to be seen as above the fray of commercial advertising. As such, the organization can be viewed from outside the agendas--hidden and otherwise--of sales, profits and commercial strategies that are a normal part of marketing, advertising and public relations.

The Ad Council, however, has functioned for six decades in the world of commerce and industry, where motives often have many dimensions, not all of them obvious.

So lesson No. 1 is this: The Council's work stops where direct advocacy begins. It's a limit imposed by self-restraint and mandated by reality. Those who have criticized the Council for timidity miss the point. While independent, the Council is ultimately a part of larger support institutions that may agree on a problem more easily than on a solution. More importantly, the messages it fashions travel via free media donated by broadcasters and publishers that may have their own reasons to avoid confrontational issues.

On the surface the Council works pro bono to connect volunteer ad agencies and sponsors with worthy non-profit organizations in need of a promotional voice; then it solicits media companies for donations of space and time. Typically, it has no money of its own to spend. So the volunteer agencies, sponsoring companies and sometimes the Council's own members step into the breach with offers of free goods and services. To ask why is to look a gift horse in the mouth.

The Case of Iron Eyes

Consider the teardrop that fell from the eye of Iron Eyes Cody, the veteran American Indian movie actor ("The Senator Was Indiscreet" and other films) who wept at what litterbugs and garbage were making of his once-pristine land. The Marsteller Inc. campaign, launched in 1971 on behalf of Keep America Beautiful, not only represents one of the Council's most famous efforts, but one of the iconic symbols in advertising. (It ranked 50th on Advertising Age's list of the top 100 ad campaigns.)

It also represented what some critics believed was wrong with the Ad Council, whose aversion to politically controversial issues restricted it to campaigns that urged individual action instead of collective structural reforms. Thus, the Keep America Beautiful campaign rested on the premise that "people start pollution, people can stop it." But what people and how? "The damage done by litter is ... inconsequential," writer Keenen Peck noted in The Progressive in 1983, "compared to the damage done by industrial pollution, but the Ad Council's slogan suggest[s] that individuals ... are responsible."

While different versions of the '70s campaign spots showed smokestacks as well as garbage, critics argued that by placing responsibility for pollution on individuals rather than institutions, the campaign was a powerful political decoy devised by corporate interests to divert public attention from the real issues of industrial waste.

Who were the corporations on the Council's advisory panel that helped initiate the campaign? They included Allied Chemicals, Bethlehem Steel, American Can, U.S. Steel and other alleged polluters. American Can funded the initial campaign, and one of the later coordinators was Marshall Lewis, director of corporate communications for Union Carbide.

American Can may have loved the pre-Columbian landscape as much as the next guy--and delighted in having Iron Eyes let people know it. But it consistently opposed state legislation designed to curb litter through container refund-deposit programs.

Robert Keim, who was president of the Ad Council during the years of the campaign, says that despite the ad effort's striking success and longevity, it could have been better. "I thought we should be focusing on the real problem," Mr. Keim recalls. "I went to the Keep America Beautiful [organization] and said we have to stop this `Sally the Litterbug' crap and tackle the real pollution problems. We can't hide our head in the sand. But the head of KAB was a timid soul and didn't want to disturb his sources of industrial support. He did good work, but KAB missed the big culprit."

That wasn't the only problem. When the "Crying Indian" campaign became the flagship public service effort on behalf of a cleaner America, many TV stations that donated airtime concluded they had fulfilled their commitment to the green movement, thus pre-empting access to the air of environmentalists outside KAB who had other views. In 1974, five environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, resigned from KAB because they believed the Ad Council campaign was a PR maneuver on the part of the container industry to cover its opposition to refund and deposit programs.

Yet, whatever the strategic reasons and hidden agendas behind the campaign, there remains the unquestioned impact it had in alerting the country to the vulnerability of the environment and in helping lay the foundations of a political will to let the government take on the larger institutional forces beyond the power of individuals to fight effectively.

Born of Public Relations

Often the best intended, effective public service efforts are motivated by PR considerations, and perhaps the prime example of that is the Advertising Council itself, conceived in 1941 not out of wartime necessity but as a child of public relations.

It seems odd that of all the business sectors to recognize the value of PR, among the last was advertising. Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn, for example, had created the patriotic radio series "The Du Pont Cavalcade of America" as part of a PR strategy to help repair the damage done to Du Pont's image as a war profiteer during World War I. Yet neither BBDO nor other major agencies seemed aware that they too needed PR help.

In the late '30s, a consumer-friendly and advertising-hostile Federal Trade Commission pressed for restrictions and reforms on ad practices while an image of advertising men as hucksters was leaking rapidly out to the public. The time had come for advertising to justify itself with the same skill it used on its clients' products.

In November 1941, about 600 members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers met at the Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. Their purpose was indeed a good cause--their own survival. They had come together to map a strategy to that end. But when James Webb Young of J. Walter Thompson Co. rose to address this war room of nervous executives, he wasn't thinking like a New Deal reformer or a social do-gooder. He was thinking like a public relations man, and about how the smart use of this new communications weapon might help put advertising on the side of the angels.

Advertising had spent too much money selling products, he said. The time had now come, he said, to "confound the critics of advertising" and embrace the idea that "a greater use of advertising for social, political and philanthropic purposes will help immeasurably to remove the distaste for advertising that now exists."

Then Came War

He didn't spell out exactly what social and philanthropic purposes he had in mind, But three weeks later, a sense of purpose dropped across America with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Mr. Young's proposal came into the world in a stroke of timing--conceived in the strategic pragmatism of industry PR, then anointed to the higher purpose of propagandizing a titanic war against Germany and Japan. Victory became the Council's first and only product for the duration, and everybody was buying.

The Advertising Council was set up as a functioning unit in Washington, D.C., in February 1942. Chester LaRoche of Young & Rubicam, as chairman, threw himself into the task with such completeness that Raymond Rubicam soon became impatient with his divided loyalties and fired him. But the LaRoche name became synonymous with the Council as he marshaled ad industry talent.

Advertising's most feared adversary, government, became its major collaborator. The first Council effort was its scrap metal and fat drive for the War Production Board, put together by McCann-Erickson. In June came the first payroll-deduction campaign to sell war bonds for the U.S. Treasury from participating agencies JWT, Y&R, Benton & Bowles and Ruthrauff & Ryan. A month later, the West Coast office of Lord & Thomas (soon to become Foote, Cone & Belding) tackled the threat of forest fires for the Department of Agriculture.

The problem of fires was at first a military one. Many believed Japanese subs could shell Western forest reserves and set off huge conflagrations. "Careless matches aid the Axis" was an early headline. It featured a picture of a diabolically evil-looking Japanese pyromaniac, reminding us today that if you are not prepared to profile your enemy in the most savage imagery, you're not prepared to kill him.

But curiously, the main message of the ads from the beginning was that Americans' carelessness, not Japanese shells, was the principal cause of forest fires. Two years later in 1944 FCB created that avuncular guardian of the American woodlands, Smokey Bear, who focused the message much more clearly for years to come. The "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires" campaign was ranked No. 26 on Ad Age's list of the top campaigns of the century.

Council Gets Moving

By the fall of 1942, the Council--now the War Advertising Council--was at work on 13 campaigns and put agencies and advertisers into direct partnership with the Departments of Treasury and Agriculture, and a procession of newly minted D.C. agencies. General Foods Corp., JWT and Y&R worked with the Office of Price Administration on rationing and price-control campaigns. Compton Advertising and Kenyon & Eckhardt took on fat salvage for the WPB (coordinated by Procter & Gamble Co.'s Neil McElroy, later to become Secretary of Defense). Leo Burnett Co. spearheaded the meat-rationing OPA program.

There would be 70 campaigns in all by V-J Day in August 1945, by which time the Ad Council had tallied about $1 billion in donated advertising time and space.

What began as a PR tactic had taken root in a time of extraordinary national unity and forged effective working alliances between advertising and government, alliances that would soon help draw advertising agencies into the election process itself to an unprecedented extent.

the `Chastity Belt'

"In the beginning," says former Council President Robert Keim, "James Webb Young predicted that after the war the Council would start getting requests from commercial groups. He said we had to create a `chastity belt.' That's why the Public Policy Committee was created. It was composed of college presidents, foundation heads, labor leaders and people such as Ralph Bunche of the U.N. and Walter Reuther of the AFL-CIO.

One thing on which there was a growing consensus was the Cold War and the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Anti-communism became a theme in many postwar Council campaigns. War bonds became savings bonds, then defense bonds during the Korean War.

"The war never stopped," said Theodore Repplier, the Y&R creative director who led the Council from 1945 to 1966, "but the enemy has changed."

When John Kennedy was inaugurated in 1961, there was anxiety among Council members over the new president. Fortunately, Mr. Kennedy had a pet project tailor-made for the Council's brand of citizen-centered social consciousness--the Peace Corps. The Council and the White House found a common cause, and this linkage would continue through involvement in the Johnson administration's "War on Poverty."

The Council began to tread lightly around racial issues in the mid-'60s, concentrating first on education and jobs. FCB urged blacks to "Get all the education you can" and cautioned "You can't get tomorrow's jobs with yesterday's skills." In 1973, Y&R took on the United Negro College Fund, coining the familiar slogan, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." But events were moving faster than the Council could keep pace with.

By the time Mr. Keim, who had served on the Council as a coordinator from 1954-61, succeeded Mr. Repplier in 1966 as president, many of the decade's major themes had proved sharply divisive. Mr. Keim was a man of moderately liberal politics. But not even a '50s Stevenson liberal could resolve the dilemmas the Council faced, such as the choice between increasingly strident calls for an anti-smoking campaign and a tobacco industry that spent millions on advertising.

FCB founder Emerson Foote, who helped create Smokey Bear and was a foe of tobacco, reminded his colleagues that "forest fires have no advertising or promotion budget." In 1967 a federal court applied the FCC's "fairness doctrine" to the cigarette industry, thus obliging networks to air anti-tobacco messages. But when the first ads appeared late that year (including a spot featuring actor William Talman, a regular in the popular "Perry Mason" TV series who was dying of lung cancer), they were sponsored by the American Cancer Society, not the Ad Council.

Meeting the 1970s

By 1970, critics of the Ad Council were asking embarrassing questions: If Smokey worried so much about what careless campers were doing to his forests, what about corporate clear-cutters? If Walter Cronkite could call for a pullout from Vietnam, why not the Ad Council? If factories were the real polluters, why was the Council still swatting litterbugs?

It would have been easy to dismiss such questions if they all came from such liberal publications as The Progressive and Ramparts. But they were also coming from Ad Age, one of the Council's most vigorous supporters, which wondered in 1972 if the Council "was equipped in temperament and resources to carry into the '70s the role it played in earlier years;" as well as such prominent agency leaders as McCaffrey & McCall President David McCall, who said the Council was "run by the same people who are doing the advertising. They aren't likely to take on anything which is against the materialism advertisers are selling."

Organizations the Council could not accommodate as too political or too limited in reach went their own way and ended up competing for donated media time and space, among them the National Organization for Women, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Planned Parenthood, which partnered once with the Council on a campaign for family planning ("Children by Choice, Not Chance") but never went near the abortion issue.

The Council and the FCC

Some believed the Council's desire to avoid controversy was its single most controversial policy. But it had a good reason to dodge full advocacy and controversy. It was rooted in the nature of its relationship to the media, especially broadcasters. The Communications Act of 1934 and the equal time provisions of Section 315 required stations to air both sides of controversial issues.

In 1976, both ABC and CBS used this doctrine as an excuse to reject a relatively mild Council campaign on the American economic system, which many believed tilted excessively toward business interests. The networks worried that statements about government regulation causing higher prices and labor's need "to keep the lid on wages" might obligate them to offer equal time to opposing economic views. Liberal critics such as Rep. Ben Rosenthal (D., N.Y.) dismissed the whole campaign as a party-line valentine to the business interests that financed the Council. After minor revisions, the campaign finally made it on to all three networks.

"There's nothing as suspicious as an uncluttered motive," Mr. Keim reflects today. "It was the Republican image that had hung over the Council."

Perhaps. But Ruth Wooden, who succeeded Mr. Keim at Council president, concedes that "in that case, I do think we probably got too close to advocacy." Either way, the Council's hands were tied.

The NASA Flap

Not all controversies were due to Council restraint. In 1986, Sigma Delta Chi, the Society of Professional Journalists, asked to the Council to coordinate a campaign on the value of a free press. Agency Lowe Marschalk came up with the theme--"If the press didn't tell us, who would?"

The campaign offered four examples of suppressed stories that came out through the media. The first three were safe enough: the Russian cover-up of the accident at Chernobyl, the end of the Marcos regime and Kurt Waldheim's hidden Nazi past. But the fourth was sensitive--NASA and the Challenger explosion.

"NASA was warned that O-rings could not withstand freezing temperatures," the ad copy said, pointing out that it was free media, not NASA, that disclosed those facts. NASA went into a tizzy when it saw the ad. "We don't deserve to be held up as a glaring example of a horror story," the agency complained. The Council, like the media, stood by the accuracy of its campaign.

By the time Mr. Keim stepped down in 1987 and Ms. Wooden left N. W. Ayer to become Ad Council president in November, the Council faced a number of independent and often competing causes and public service providers.

Council Competitors

"I would say the reason we ended up with competition," Ms. Wooden says, "was because the Council was a model that proved it could work."

The largest of the competitors would be the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which began in 1985 and launched it first campaign in March 1987. By 1991, it was the No. 3 individual brand advertiser in America after McDonald's Corp. and AT&T Corp. The Partnership's best-known PSA has been "Fried Egg."

The Ad Council had already mounted several anti-drug campaigns, including "Just Say No" in 1983 with Needham, Harper & Steers and "Cocaine, the Big Lie" in 1985 with Doyle Dane Bernbach, both for the National Institute on Drug Abuse. If Ms. Wooden is philosophical about competition from the Partnership, Mr. Keim is less patient with it. In his recently published memoir (See Page C-24), he writes: "To us [the Council], doing one ad, no matter how striking, was just that, one ad. `This is Your Brain on Drugs' showed an egg sizzling in a frying pan. A great ad. But not a campaign."

Though the Council had relinquished its former monopoly and adjusted well to a more diverse public service environment in Mr. Keim's last years there, its basic operations needed an overhaul.

"When I arrived," says Ms. Wooden, the Council's "venerability was showing a bit too much. It didn't have a fax machine. When we got one, everyone was excited."

Condoms and AIDS

One effect of competition was a greater willingness on the part of the producers of PSAs to take on tough issues. That lesson was not lost on the Ad Council, whose 85-member board sifted through almost 400 applications a year from non-profit groups. In 1989-90 the Council, in partnership with the American Federation for AIDS Research, did the first PSA campaign to endorse the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS.

"I remember the press conference," says Ms. Wooden, "probably the single largest one I ever did. We had a fair amount of controversy--you know, why weren't we promoting abstinence and things like that."

Competition for prime media real estate also was coming from stations and networks under pressure to generate more profits through paid advertising. This left the Council often scraping for donated airtime. In 1997, Ad Council Chairman Alex Kroll and FCC Chairman Reed Hundt asked for each network to commit to a minute a night in prime time for PSAs.

Although the deregulation that had swept broadcasting during Ronald Reagan's administration removed most legal obligations for stations to serve "the public interest," the public interest tradition still had great momentum. But deregulation also had given the networks other ways to do the job. One was to use top network stars in public interest spots produced and branded by the network--a formula that both brought prestige and credit for serving the public interest and a promotional bump for a current series. NBC's series of Saturday morning "One to Grow On" spots for children won Emmys and even a Peabody award.

That was in the mid- to late '80s. Today the practice is firmly rooted in network policy. NBC uses "E.R." star Anthony Edwards in its "The More You Know" message.

The Ad Council had no official objections to networks pushing a good cause, but pointed out that this didn't always help the non-profit groups the Council had traditionally served. Neither did the rise of paid cause-related marketing efforts by advertisers, such as the "When to Say When" moderation spots from Anheuser-Busch.

"I became concerned," says Ms. Wooden, "that the networks were replacing PSAs sponsored by non-profits with other messages."

Since the 1980s there also has been a vast expansion of media opportunities. Today the Council distributes PSAs to 28,000 media outlets, including radio, broadcast and cable TV, daily and weekly newspapers, and the Internet, according to Peggy Conlon, who became president of the Ad Council in 1999.

"It's all about impressions," Ms. Conlon says. "Probably 12 years ago, you could reach the majority of your audience on broadcast TV over the three networks. That's not the case today."

Generally, the Council avoids the political thicket by concentrating on individuals. "So drilling in Alaska is not something individuals can do anything about," says Paula Veale, an Ad Council spokeswoman. "Driving smaller cars is."

In recent years, the Council has focused its resources increasingly on children's issues, from child abuse, AIDS prevention and domestic violence to more subtle issues such as gender roles in childhood and discrimination.

Epiphany in Manhattan

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 were first seen as the Pearl Harbor of the 21st century and seemed to invite bold responses. But events have proved less conclusive. Total war has not yet followed. Nothing is expected to be rationed. There are no daily routines to remind the U.S. of wartime urgencies.

The entry last year of former agency executive Charlotte Beers into government as a kind of international communications czar was followed by speculation on what role the Ad Council might play. Although they've been in communication, the Council seems to believe its jurisdiction stops at the U.S. border while Ms. Beers is charged with the responsibility of helping to explain American values and concepts of freedom and democracy abroad.

"The U.S. is unique in its media organizations' willingness to support public service ads through donations," says Ms. Conlon. "The part of the world [Ms. Beers] needs to focus on now is not constructed on that model. She has to go into paid ads, while we cannot."

"We're changing our model," Ms. Conlon told The New York Times weeks after the attack. The goal will be "supporting the country [with a] sense of higher mission."

The current "Campaign for Freedom" is "not all that different from the World War II campaigns," Ms. Conlon reflects. "But 60 years ago the Ad Council campaigns involved things that Americans could do to support the war effort, like buying war bonds."

For all the conflicts, occasional opportunities and aversion to controversy that have marked the Council's history for 60 years, it nevertheless finds itself today with a reputation that continues to arouse great expectations in times of difficulty. Perhaps it was silly to expect individuals to coalesce in a sudden collective effort to stop inflation or end foreign oil dependency. But the awareness of issues dramatized in Ad Council campaigns helped create a political environment that made real action and change possible.

Photos courtesy of Ad Council and University of Illinois Archives.

Most Popular