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Lumped in with used-car salesmen, lawyers and politicians, advertising professionals have been perceived as manipulative and dishonest, willing to sell their souls if it means selling more stuff to people. The public service announcement (PSA) reminds us that advertising is not all bad. It has played a vital role in advancing society for the better.

“The PSA is the industry’s best demonstration of what is possible through creativity,” says Nancy Vonk, who was behind Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty while co–chief creative officer at Ogilvy & Mather Toronto and is now a partner at leadership consultancy Swim. “It has changed mindsets and behaviors about important issues in measurable ways. Even as a young creative person, it was clear to me that any chance I had to work in this zone would be solid gold. A PSA was a truly blank page for creativity without the usual restrictions of our industry.”

That creativity is just as needed today. Trust in government and media has imploded. The world seems more chaotic, divisive and uncertain than ever. Global issues, from climate change and gun violence to economic disparity, remain big societal problems. “In a world that has kind of gone mad, it is ironic to think, ‘Thank God there is advertising to save us,’” says Vonk.

The Crying Indian TV commercial (left), created by ad agency Marsteller, Inc. for the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful, first aired on Earth Day in 1971 to dramatize how litter and other forms of pollution were hurting the environment. Keye/Donna/Pearlstein created the famous visual metaphor “This is your brain on drugs” (center) for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. The TV commercial, directed by Joe Pytka, premiered in 1987. The 2007 TV commercial featuring Sarah McLachlan’s song “Angel” (right), created by Canadian agency Eaglecom, has become the most successful fundraising effort ever for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Landmark PSAs
Founded in 1942 by members of the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers, the Ad Council was called the War Advertising Council during World War II and used PSAs to help raise $35 million in war bonds. The campaign including the now-iconic poster of Rosie the Riveter declaring “We Can Do It!” also helped recruit more than two million women into the depleted US workforce.

Before his death in 1945, president Franklin D. Roosevelt directed the nonprofit to continue raising awareness on issues of public interest once the war ended. That led to the Wildfire Prevention campaign by FCB West in 1944 with Smokey Bear—the longest-running PSA campaign in US history—and the United Negro College Fund’s A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste by Young & Rubicam in 1972, seen more recently in Jordan Peele’s 2017 film Get Out. And on Earth Day in 1971, the country was introduced to the Crying Indian. The commercial, created by Marsteller, Inc. for Keep America Beautiful, featured an actor portraying a Native American man. He paddles a canoe upriver and comes ashore to a busy freeway, only to have a bag of trash land at his feet from a passing car. The camera pans to his face as a single tear rolls down his cheek.

The Crying Indian wasn’t released without controversy. Critics noted that it made individuals feel guilty about littering, while diverting attention from Keep America Beautiful’s corporate partners, including the American Can Company, which at the time was opposing legislation in support of a deposit-refund system for beverage bottles. Nevertheless, the ad has become a pop-culture reference, including in episodes of The Simpsons and Mad Men, and is in many rankings of the all-time best commercials. “As a result of this ad, littering became taboo overnight,” says Brian Morris, who was mentored by late pro-bono pioneer Phillip Joanou and is now a partner at Silver Advertising. “Even my dad, who was prone to throwing empty fast food bags out of the car window, changed his ways.”

In 1985, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America was founded with the express purpose of public service advertising. Ideated by Joanou, then chief executive officer of ad agency Dailey & Associates, the nonprofit would debut the iconic egg metaphor for drug use, created by Los Angeles ad agency Keye/Donna/Pearlstein, only two years later. In the commercial, the narrator explains, “This is your brain. This is drugs. This is your brain on drugs,” as he cracks a fresh egg into a sizzling frying pan.

“Phil’s idea of ‘unselling’ drugs and changing behaviors by changing attitudes is one of the great achievements in the history of our business,” says Morris. “Not long after the Partnership started, the best agencies and directors were clamoring for an opportunity to participate—and, of course, always on a pro-bono basis.”

Renamed the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids in 2014, the nonprofit has produced 3,000 ads and been given more than $2 billion in media inventory and creative time, Morris says.

Empowering more messages
Most PSAs in the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s tried to guilt or scare people into changing their behavior. In addition to antilittering and antidrug messages, appeals from famine relief organizations featured heart-wrenching images of starving children with flies in their eyes. In 2007, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) set images of forlorn-looking animals to Sarah McLachlan’s ballad “Angel.” The commercial, by Canadian agency Eaglecom, reportedly raised $30 million in the first two years of its release, making it the ASPCA’s most successful fundraising effort ever.

While wildly effective, such ads soon came under fire. The hunger relief ads prevalent in the ’80s gave rise to the term “poverty porn” for objectifying and dehumanizing the poor as hopeless victims. The ads besieged TV airwaves and left viewers gut-punched even if they had previously donated money. The commercialization of personal video recorders—along with becoming desensitized to such images—made it easier to turn away.

“The images were so tragic, but they had been shown so many times that people weren’t responding anymore,” says Judy John, Edelman’s global chief creative officer, who led the Always #LikeAGirl campaign at Leo Burnett. “The creative challenge became, how do we make this ongoing story relevant again and remind people whatever we’re working towards isn’t finished?”

Antismoking ads, targeted at teens with scare tactics about their health and even their breath, were falling on deaf ears. The integrated campaign Truth powerfully flipped the script in 2000 by tapping into teens’ rebellious nature. Created by Arnold Worldwide and Crispin Porter & Bogusky for the newly formed American Legacy Foundation, its infamous “Body Bag” commercial featured teens unloading 1,200 body bags, stuffed with paper, on the sidewalk outside a tobacco company’s headquarters.

Created in 2000 by Arnold Worldwide and Crispin Porter & Bogusky for the American Legacy Foundation, the infamous TV commercial “Body Bag” (left) featured teens using guerrilla tactics to dramatize the number of daily deaths attributed to tobacco. In 2012, McCann Melbourne promoted rail safety for Metro Trains Melbourne with the music video “Dumb Ways to Die” (right), which has been viewed more than 181 million times on YouTube.

“We decided not to talk about the health risks of their smoking, but enlist teens to rebel against the tobacco industry,” says Pete Favat, who served as co–executive creative director on the campaign for Arnold Worldwide and is now North American chief creative officer at Deutsch. “We made the campaign all about how these people are killing your moms and your aunts and your grandmas and grandpas, and they are going to kill your little brother too. And so we needed to fuck them over big time.”

“It worked because we didn’t make teens feel guilty; we made them feel empowered,” Favat says. American Legacy credited Truth to a 2010 stat that showed only 12 percent of tenth graders had smoked in the last 30 days, down 52 percent from 1999, and the nonprofit even changed its name to the Truth Initiative in 2015.

Creatives also found that the PSA’s funny bone opened the door for even dead-serious issues to be widely heard.

To promote rail safety, Metro Trains Melbourne debuted the music video “Dumb Ways to Die” in 2012. Created by McCann Melbourne, the three-minute video features adorable characters making stupid decisions and hilariously meeting their maker. It has amassed 181 million views on YouTube, making it the world’s most shared PSA, and the catchy jingle has charted on iTunes in more than 25 countries. “So clever and effective,” says Morris. “It was inexpensive to produce and won all the awards.”

In fact, in 2013, Dumb Ways to Die became the most awarded campaign ever at Cannes. Since then, PSAs have continued to do well at the industry’s most prestigious awards show, and that has sparked debate over whether PSAs should be relegated to their own category. “Talk to a jury member of any big show, and you’ll hear the concern, ‘Wow, it seems what is standing out more and more in every show are PSAs,’” says Vonk. “The reality is, there are fewer client barriers to creative success with PSAs. They are laudable and inspiring, and they can make clients feel, ‘Is this the industry’s true calling? Is it that they want to do this stuff and not my stuff?’”

“It is a dangerous signal to send,” she says, “because it can look like we’re obsessed with free jobs.”

But the times may be changing.

“Businesses and brands are driving social good and social issues in a way we’ve never quite seen before,” says Lisa Sherman, president and chief executive officer of the Ad Council. “When thinking about the past few years, Nike immediately stands out. The release of its Colin Kaepernick Dream Crazy ad [by Wieden+Kennedy] felt like a real risk for the brand, and it paid off.”

Client jobs are, of course, to sell product. And advertising helps do that by tapping into what makes consumers feel good. If the prices are low, they feel good about saving money. If the video has cute animals in it, they feel warm and fuzzy. If the brand is liked by their friends or favorite celebrities, they feel like they’re in good company. But consumers today are feeling good about purchases for an entirely different reason: the company is a good corporate citizen, with values that align with theirs and a purpose greater than just printing money.

“Of course it has,” Favat says when asked if this has led to the blurring of the line between PSAs and ads. He points to REI’s ongoing #OptOutside campaign, created by Venables Bell & Partners and first launched in 2015, which encourages people to get outdoors on Black Friday rather than shop. Despite closing on the busiest shopping day of the year, the retailer has disclosed that the campaign helped lead to record sales in 2017.

“Years ago, you would have gotten laughed out of the boardroom with a marketing idea like closing on Black Friday. So, is #OptOutside a marketing idea since it led to increased sales? Or is it a PSA because it was promoting the importance of the outdoors and physical health? I often wonder what it is,” says Favat. “But I think it is a blend. It is about a company doing the right thing. And I think that’s where marketing is going and should be going.”

“I don’t think we have to feel like used-car salesmen anymore.” ca

Toronto-based Chris Daniels (chris@chrisdaniels.ca) writes about advertising, marketing and visual communications for publications such as Applied Arts and Marketing

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