What later became the longest-running ad campaign of the peacetime Advertising Council, for Smokey the Bear, originated during the war, when we feared the Japanese would try to start forest fires by shelling the West Coast. So recalled Bob Keim, for 22 years president of the Ad Council, who is writing a book on its history.
"The look and content of wartime council advertising was like nothing before or since," Bob stated. "Gaunt, bleary-eyed, unshaven GIs, rifles slung over their shoulders-drawn in four colors with combat settings by good artists-stared at the readers of publications or at viewers of outdoor posters and car cards in subways, buses and trains. The opening copy said, `Are you going to tell them you're tired of buying war bonds?' Ships sinking, aircraft crashing, tanks crushing, blood, gore-it was all there. Heavy handed at times, with vitriolic caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo snarling at us, but it worked.
"Just as Bill Mauldin's cartoons of the two bedraggled foot soldiers, Willie and Joe, became famous, Ad Council ads found their way onto office, dormitory and factory walls, pin-ups of a different kind. Big advertisers, many without any products to sell, turned their agencies loose on themes and causes fed to them by the council and paid the cost of placing the ads, some with signatures, some without," Bob recalled.
Almost 60 years later, this is a different time, a different war. Charlotte Beers, the State Department's new chief of public diplomacy, talks of the need to "redefine who America is" to Muslims around the world. Our way of life-and what we buy as consumers is part of that-is under attack. "And what we haven't felt the need to communicate is what is the value system?" Ms. Beers told our publication. "What are our beliefs? What do the words freedom and tolerance mean? We are having people who are not our friends define America in negative terms. It is time for us to reignite the understanding of America."
There's another challenge as well. Beyond the very difficult problem of changing angry minds, who often see U.S. products spreading the depraved values of our culture across the face of the earth, our own citizens need to learn how to cope with the persuasive fear of terrorism.
When our government tells us to be alert to possible terrorist action, how are we supposed to react? If the War Advertising Council prepared our parents and grandparents for a heightened awareness of the need for secrecy, why can't the present-day Ad Council help us know how to better protect ourselves from suspicious occurrences or unknown assailants? What can we tell our kids to keep them out of harm's way? What can we do to help alert authorities to possible terrorist activity?
People want to help in the war on terrorism and, unlike World War II, where all the fighting was on foreign soil, they can play an important role. But, as The New York Times reported, President Bush has yet to "involve the American people as a whole in the campaign-that vast majority who were not touched by the Sept. 11 attacks or the various anthrax scares. The danger, over the long term, is loss of interest. Will a nation that has spent decades in easy indulgence stay focused?"
A call to arms is what advertising can do well.
Back in World War II, the ad industry met with Henry Morgenthau Jr., secretary of the Treasury, for a briefing on the war and the government's needs to communicate with the American people, according to Bob Keim. From that meeting, the War Advertising Council was born.
This time around the ad industry should meet with former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, the new director of homeland security, to offer the services of the battle-tested Advertising Council. Let the council frame the message on what all of us can do to win the war. All other messages should take a backseat.