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The Ad Council's Greatest Hits

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Only you can prevent forest fires. Take a bite out of crime. What do these slogans have in common? They are all public service announcements, or PSAs, and they are ingrained in our memories thanks to the Ad Council.

What is the Ad Council?

The Ad Council was formed in 1942 when a group of Madison Avenue advertising execs wanted to contribute to the war effort without actually leaving their day jobs. The result was a series of ads encouraging Americans to buy war bonds. They were so successful that President Roosevelt encouraged the organization to continue the program after the war had ended.

How does it work? A non-profit or government organization (such as the Boys Clubs of America or the Department of Homeland Security) approaches the Ad Council with a cause that needs support. The Council farms out the job to an advertising agency, which provides its creative and production work free of charge. The people that appear in PSA spots, whether celebrities or civilians, get no pay and no residuals for their work. The Council then approaches different media outlets "“ radio, TV and even the Internet "“ to get the ads placed (again, free of charge). The Ad Council requires that PSAs promote positive social change in such areas as the quality of life for children, preventative health, education, community well being, and environmental preservation.

Smokey Bear

In 1944 the Ad Council used a young bear cub who'd been rescued from a New Mexico wildfire as an icon to emphasize the dangers of playing with matches and leaving campfires smoldering. Originally called "Hot Foot Teddy," Smokey Bear became so popular that an estimated 95% of the U.S. population can finish the statement "Remember: Only You Can Prevent"¦" without prompting. The forest fire prevention campaign was so successful that many national parks now must employ the use of "prescribed burnings" "“ carefully controlled fires of moderate intensity "“ in an effort to help restore Nature's balance.

The United Negro College Fund

The United Negro College Fund was established in 1944 as a philanthropic fund to not only provide scholarships to students but also to help pay the operating costs of historically black universities. The UNCF received a major boost in fundraising when the Ad Council launched an aggressive PSA campaign in 1968 with the help of Young & Rubicam, who came up with the slogan "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Thanks to the power of advertising, the amount of annual donations climbed into the millions beginning in the early 1970s.

Keep America Beautiful

The non-profit organization known as Keep America Beautiful was founded in 1953, but chances are the majority of Americans were unaware of the group's existence until the first PSA starring the "Crying Indian" aired in 1971. Iron Eyes Cody provided a powerful visual slap upside the head as an illustration of how throwing your Big Mac wrappers out of the car window was destroying the landscape. The fact that Iron Eyes Cody was actually an Italian-American gent named Espera de Corti shouldn't detract from the overall message. Litter is still ugly enough to make a grown man cry.

Don't Smoke

Back in 1967, the dangers of cigarette smoking were well known, but tobacco companies were still allowed to advertise on television. As a counterpoint to those ads which showed young, successful, average suburban adults happily puffing away, this PSA was meant to be a wake-up call and reminder of how children tend to imitate their parental role models.

Don't Do Drugs, Either

In the same vein as the "Like Father, Like Son" anti-smoking campaign, this 1987 PSA was aimed at the Baby Boomers who'd grown up smoking marijuana as casually as their parents had done with cigarettes. But the children of the Boomers were experimenting with drugs that were unheard of in the late 60s/early 70s, and this commercial was trying to nudge parents into realizing that "Guess what? Your kids know what pot smells like, so even if you only surreptitiously smoke it after they've gone to bed, they know what you've been up to, and the logic follows that if it's OK that Mom and Dad do drugs"¦."

Buckle Up

The U.S. hasn't cornered the market on PSAs. In fact, some of the ads broadcast overseas are far more graphic. Take, for example, this UK ad promoting the use of seat belts by passengers sitting in the back seat. (Warning for the squeamish: It's quite graphic -- watch at your own risk.)

Don't Screw Around in the Workplace

Canada's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (similar to the U.S.'s OSHA) ran a very graphic series of PSAs demonstrating workplace accidents happening when least expected and under the most mundane of circumstances. (Again, if you're squeamish, this has a squicky ending.)

Don't Touch Blasting Caps

When I was a kid, Saturday morning cartoons were always punctuated with PSA warnings about the danger of blasting caps. Was there some sort of huge construction boom in the 1960s that made blasting caps such a pervasive threat? I don't know, but I do know that during my fetal months I fervently searched local vacant fields for tiny devices as shown on the commercials, but never found a single blasting cap.

Which PSAs have stuck with you throughout the years? Woodsy Owl? This is your brain on drugs? Or maybe a lesser-known ad ("What is pwedudice?"). Chime in with the public service announcements that have haunted you since childhood.

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#TBT
The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu
John Lamparski/Getty Images for Hulu

Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
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History
Why Lucky the Leprechaun Was Missing From Some Lucky Charms Boxes in 1975
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Sarah Mahala Photography & Makeup Artistry, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s hard to picture a box of Lucky Charms without a smiling leprechaun plastered on the front of it. But cereal fans living in New England in the 1970s may remember a brief period when Lucky was nowhere to be seen. In his place was a forgetful wizard who was barely given a chance to make a blip in cereal mascot history.

As Atlas Obscura shared in a recent story, Waldo the Wizard became the face of Lucky Charms in select stores in 1975. At that point, Lucky had been representing the brand since it was introduced over a decade earlier, but General Mills was toying with going in a different direction with the marketing.

Lucky’s shtick hasn’t changed much since Lucky Charms was introduced in 1964: In commercials, the leprechaun is enjoying his treasured cereal when a group of hungry kids comes along. Instead of offering to share, Lucky plots to keep his Lucky Charms to himself and always fails. It’s not exactly controversial as far as kids' ads go, but in the mid-1970s, executives worried that the mascot's unfriendly attitude towards children would rub consumers the wrong way.

Enter Waldo: a wizard who wore a green cloak spangled with hearts, stars, clovers, and moons, and, like Lucky, adored Lucky Charms. But unlike Lucky, Waldo was always warm with kids and never hesitated to share his breakfast. Instead of running away, his gag was that he was always forgetting where he put his box of Lucky Charms, to which the kids responded by reminding him that he could just conjure some up with magic.

Shoppers responded positively to Waldo during his trial run in New England stores, but after less than a year, General Mills pulled the plug on the experiment. It turned out that having a slightly more innocuous character wasn’t worth abandoning the original mascot after spending so much time and money promoting him.

While he’s undergone a few redesigns in the past 50 years, Lucky is still prominently displayed on every box of Lucky Charms. His cereal-hoarding tendencies have also remained the same, though Lucky was written to be a bit friendlier following Waldo’s short-lived era.

[h/t Atlas Obscura]

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