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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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"¦."
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.)
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.)
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.