Wooden challenges critics of ad group

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Ruth Wooden, at the surprisingly youthful age of 55, has become something of an elder stateswoman of advertising.

Her venue of statesmanship is the Advertising Council, which she presided over from 1987 to 1999, a time no less critical than that of her predecessor, Robert Keim, or her successor, Peggy Conlon.

Today Ms. Wooden works for Porter Novelli, a PR unit of Omnicom Group, New York, and maintains a busy commuting schedule between offices in Washington and New York. Her work continues to involve a variety of non-profit clients, including Catholic Charities, the March of Dimes and the American Legacy Foundation.

She came to the Council job at a time when it was still being taken to task for timidity. She says it was frustrating because that charge was based on a false notion of the Council's purpose and power.

"There is an important theme that runs through public service advertising," she reflects. "It's essential that the messages get seen and heard and read. Otherwise, they do no good. So a lot of people would criticize us for not going as far as they thought we should.

"For example, I was told by some that our PSA on safety belts was great, but why didn't we go after the car companies to put heavier metals in cars and make them safer. And I told them it was because it would never see the light of day on any network or station. Depriving us of exposure is like cutting off the blood supply. That's the one unalterable argument in why we can't become partisan advocates.

"It's very important to remember that public service advertising as defined by the media means that it is not commercial, not partisan, not designed to influence legislation. We could not be advocates. If we took a position that wasn't a public service for all Americans, it could be criticized by the media as not qualified for their donations of time. And without those donations, there would be no PSAs."

Another challenge the Council faced during Ms. Wooden's presidency was a growing level of competition in the public service sphere. This, she says, was inevitable because "we could not have done every campaign that came to us under any circumstances, controversial or not." And as she points out in the accompanying historical survey, "the Ad Council was a model that proved it could work."


This included the broadcasters, which began using the model to combine promotion of causes with promotion of their own programming.

"The networks were also copying the success of the Ad Council because they understood the credibility public service brings to its bearers," she says. "They certainly had higher credibility than a lot of commercial ads. It was a smart strategy."

Just four months before Ms. Wooden assumed leadership of the Council, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America launched its first effort. This seemed to be competition she welcomed.

"My belief is that advertising can make an enormous impact on issues such as drug use," she says. "The problem needed its own organization and infrastructure. It would have taken too many of our resources to give it the kind of attention the Partnership generated.

"There was a lot of concern at first that it wasn't an Ad Council program. I think we can all look back now and say that that concern did not prove [to be justified]. The Ad Council and Partnership drive together made the category bigger. The total pie coming out of industry-sponsored groups was a lot bigger. ... It allowed the Ad Council the opportunity to focus on other issues of equal importance. It's win-win."