More Than A Way To Pay For Content, Advertising Can Change the World.

Loose lips sink ships.

Image via Vintage Ad Browser
Image via Vintage Ad Browser

So went one of the first iconic public service campaigns of what is known today as the Ad Council, in a campaign to educate and remind Americans to be, “discreet in their communication to prevent information from being leaked to the enemy during World War II.”

Today, the mission of the Ad Council is simple:

“We identify a select number of significant public issues and stimulate action on those issues through communications programs that make a measurable difference in our society”

Full disclosure: I have the humbling honor of being this year’s Chairman (a rotating position in the ad industry), and my company, Y&R, is a founding member from the 1940s. Y&R has worked on a number of campaigns for the Council, most notably working with the UNCF (the United Negro College Fund) for the past 45 years. The memorable “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” we coined is a powerful thought that is still resonating today.

Image via
Image via, from the 1970s
Image via New York Times, from 2013
Image via the New York Times, from 2013

Some of the most loved and revered characters and slogans in American advertising history live on as well, from Smokey Bear to McGruff the Crime Dog, the Crying Indian who ushered in the first Earth Day, and of course, ‘Just Say No,’ which introduced Nancy Regan’s anti-drug program.

The real Smokey Bear featured in ad campaigns from 1975-1990, via
The real Smokey Bear featured in ad campaigns from 1975-1990, via
Image via
Image via
(Nancy Reagan at a "Just Say No" rally at the White House on May 22, 1986 via Southern California Public Radio
Nancy Reagan at a “Just Say No” rally at the White House on May 22, 1986 via Southern California Public Radio

But I digress. Let me return to its founding.

At the start of World War II, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized the potential of leveraging advertising and media communities together to support the war effort. Because the country was unprepared for war, the need for public education was critical.

Christened, “The War Advertising Council,” its first effort encouraged Americans to purchase war bonds. When the campaign ended some 38 years later, $35 billion in war/savings bonds had been sold.
Image via Ad Council

Of equal power (and in retrospect so ahead of its time) was the drive to recruit women for jobs in industries important to the war effort. Dubbed, “The More Women at Work, the Sooner We’ll Win,” this campaign helped to bring over 2 million women to the workplace. But more importantly, the campaign created social change, as employment outside of the home started to become socially acceptable and desirable for women. 

Women at War
Image via Ad Council

So powerful and measurable were the results of the Council’s work, that even before the war ended, President Roosevelt encouraged them to continue working in peacetime. In 1946, the name was officially changed to The Advertising Council. Its focus shifted to saving lives, the environment, global engagement, prevention of all kinds… and love.

Peace Corps
Image via Ad Council


Still, after all these years, what makes The Ad Council so extraordinary is that it is arguably the only place in today’s business landscape of intense competition and ruthless cost-cutting where 24/7 competitors put aside everything and work together for the better good.

In fact, if we measured the size (never mind the impact) of the some $1.6 billion dollars in donated media, The Ad Council would be one of the largest advertisers anywhere. And of course, its measured impact can be best understood by the societal success of its various campaigns and efforts.

Last week was the Ad Council Annual Dinner, celebrating another year of important contribution to life in America. The sentiment was clear to all, that in the often-toxic environment which rears its ugly head, with funding cut across the board for key social programs, the work of our industry has never been more important. Our coming together has never been more impactful.

Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, was a most worthy recipient of The Ad Council Annual Award for his own and Unilever’s commitment to improving lives. One of his key observations was the need to take this model global—and quickly.

I share with you the four programs that were shared at the dinner, but more importantly the words and thoughts of the real people who have been impacted by the campaigns in question:

Samantha Jacobs | Hunger Prevention | Ad Council

Jeannette McCoy | Love Has No Labels | Ad Council 

Ashley Garcia Rivera | Adoption from Foster Care | Ad Council 

Ella Griffith-Tager | Learning & Attention Issues | Ad Council

I am proud to be a part of the Ad Council, as are all my colleagues and friends across the spectrum of clients: agencies, ad-tech and media companies who come together to change the world. It is extraordinary. And in a world where some question the impact and future of advertising, I can only say pay more attention to solving the world’s problems, and less to empty punditry.

Franklin Roosevelt, in a way the founder, said it best:

“Competition has been shown to be useful up to a certain point and no further, but cooperation, which is the thing we must strive for today, begins where competition leaves off.” 

In a global environment where partisanship is replacing partnership, and where cutthroat competition is trying to edge out world-changing cooperation, I urge you to take a moment and review the work of The Ad Council. Take inspiration from its work — and from its model.

How might others apply the same thinking?

How might you?

What’s your view?


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