By Emily Wax-Thibodeaux The Washington Post
They pulled all-nighters. They worked weekends. The young advertising copywriters at the Draftfcb advertising agency in California had landed a big account, but it wasn’t a car company or fast-food chain. It was the federal government.
Smokey Bear, a character in some of the government’s most iconic public service ads, needed a makeover, a reinvention, maybe a new personality.
“This was just this awesome, huge honor,” said Eric Springer, chief creative officer at Draftfcb Springer Southern California. “This was as cool as working for Coke. Brand government doesn’t have to put a bad taste in your mouth.”
Some of the retro-cool slogans made famous by a PSA:
- Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.
- You can learn a lot from a dummy.
- The toughest job you’ll ever love.
The ads have long captured the public’s imagination, with characters and slogans that have become a part of the American vernacular and still hold real estate in the national psyche. Even in the toughest of economic times, ad agencies covet these largely pro bono accounts because they have the potential to influence the culture for decades to come. But gaining a new generation’s attention requires cultural adaptation.
Mastering the new media
In the past, viewers were captive audiences who collapsed in front of the television after school. Today they are busy checking text messages and scrolling Vine videos during commercial breaks.
Young people are experts at bypassing advertising completely, posing a challenge to federal government agencies and their advertising partners eager for ways to penetrate the American mind-set as deeply as the classics did.
About $1.5 billion was donated in media time to government and nonprofit ads, with about $600 million for 19 government campaigns addressing such issues as hunger and anti-bullying.
In addition, the government and nonprofit organizations have increased social media budgets for public service ads from $300,000 in 2009 to about $1 million last year to pay for social media teams, according to the Ad Council, which works with ad agencies to produce national public service ads on behalf of the federal government and other nonprofit groups.
The 69-year-old Smokey, for instance, now has a Twitter feed. He’s on Instagram. He’s reportedly the only bear on LinkedIn. On a recent Facebook post, Smokey Bear declared himself “a friend of hipsters.”
Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive of the council, said a crucial question is where does the target audience get its information. “If that’s Facebook or Twitter, that’s where we want to be,” she said.
Massaging the message
Apart from changing the medium, the government’s volunteer ad executives also have to change the tone of the message.
Today peer-to-peer endorsements and reviews on sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor are much more valuable than the government, or even a celebrity, telling you what to do, said Adonis Hoffman, who is on the National Advertising Review Board and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
“So if you want to cut through the clutter and reach young minds, then you really need user-generated content. You better get people giving you thousands of likes on Facebook or re-tweeting your ad,” said Hoffman.
There’s also a deeper distrust of government messages today, especially with a generation scarred by the economic crash and the lack of jobs, millennials say.
“Tone is everything. The government shouldn’t come across like big, bad dad telling you what to do,” said Nathalie Con, 24, strategic planner at RPA Advertising, which works on a campaign for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dubbed “Stop the texts. Stop the wrecks.”
Making a connection
In its heyday, 1970s ads such as Keep America Beautiful and the crying-Indian campaign — in which actor Iron-Eyes Cody paddled a canoe through a polluted, trash-strewn river, shedding a single tear — forever stigmatized littering.
In the 1980s, Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry and their irreverent slogan — “You can learn a lot from a dummy” — were credited along with new laws with boosting seat-belt usage from 14 percent in mid-1980s to 85 percent in 2010, according to David Strickland, administrator with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“These ads just really impacted me as a kid. Characters like Smokey and Vince and Larry were touchstones and really changed behavior that today we would find shocking, like driving with your baby on your lap or smoking while pregnant,” said Strickland. “We want to do the same thing with texting while driving and other social issues today.”
Inside the creative living room of Draftfcb, Springer’s team of young copywriters asked themselves: “How do you update Smokey, who has such cultural currency, but avoid sounding like he’s lecturing?”
The Smokey Bearhug
Smokey Bear was long a World War II-era scold, sternly warning Americans in doom-filled comic books and radio spots about a “fiery holocaust” enveloping forests when campers carelessly played with matches.
But recently, the government used research by the Ad Council to target 18-to-34-year-olds who go hiking and camping, said Helene Cleveland, forest fire prevention manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service knew it had to update Smokey, since many remember him from childhood but haven’t heard from him in a while.
“Smokey keeps up with the times. That was just really important to us,” Cleveland said. “We wanted his tone to resonate.”
So the team at Draftfcb decided to make Smokey a hugger.
“We thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want a Smokey Bear hug?’” said Springer, whose other clients includeMotorola and Nestle.
And so the video “Smokey Bearhug” was born. In it, a couple douses a campfire and makes sure it is completely extinguished. Suddenly, a towering Smokey appears and gives the boyfriend a giant hug. His girlfriend instantly snaps a picture.
“Uh, Smokey just gave me a bear hug,” he says, stunned.
“Already posted it,” his girlfriend says.
Texting the next target
Last week, in an office in downtown Washington, a team of 20-something women at GolinHarris, a leading marketing and public relations agency, were trying to create a memorable moment in their campaign, dubbed “Stop the Texts. Stop the Wrecks.”
Three digital managers at the firm, whose corporate clients include McDonald’s and Wal-Mart, were seated around a U-shaped social media command center, trying to capture — minute by minute, tweet by tweet — the cluttered imaginations of a new generation. They were looking over a white board list of the top stories on social media that day.
“What’s trending today is a list of ‘worst pickup lines,’” calls out Brooke Miller, a 25-year-old digital manager. “So let’s offer another one, ‘Give me your number and I’ll text you while driving,’ and then link to our campaign,” she suggested darkly.
It’s tough to stop young people from texting while driving when they are slaves to their phones, the managers say.
“It’s not like you can send a text about not texting,” said Samantha Osborn, 26, who is on the social media team. “What we need to do is raise the issue and get it to be a super-busy conversation online. Then, and only then, it will become socially unacceptable.”
Frying eggs, crash test dummies and other great PSAs
For decades, public service ads have tried to steer people away from costly, harmful behaviors, from child labor to smoking while pregnant.
Their slogans, most from government and non-profits, have become a part of American vernacular, moving from staples of after-school and Saturday morning programming to Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram. Here are 12 of some of the most memorable PSAs:
1. Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk
Since launching the anti-drinking and driving campaign in 1983, more than 68 percent of Americans report that they have tried to prevent someone from driving after drinking, according to the nonprofit Ad Council, which joined the Department of Transportation and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration along and the agency DDB to produce these haunting ads. tinyurl.com/PSAFriends
2. Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires (in 2001, revised to: Only You Can Prevent Wildfires)
Smokey Bear and his warning is part of the longest-running campaign in the Ad Council’s history. The classic ads, begun on billboards in 1944, evolved with the times. Smokey, now on Twitter and Facebook, is a hugger, finding that positive rewards rather than scolding work better with today’s generation. tinyurl.com/PSABearhug and tinyurl.com/PSASmokey73
3. A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
This highly emotional 1972 ad with a proud mother saying, “I got me a college man,” helped raise more than $3.5 billion to make college scholarships more accessible to minority students. The slogan is still used by the United Negro College Fund, now known as UNCF. It was updated in June to add the upbeat tag line: “But a wonderful thing to invest in.” tinyurl.com/PSAMind
4. People Start Pollution. People Can Stop It.
On Earth Day 1971, the Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful premiered an ad that showed Iron Eyes Cody, aka “The Crying Indian,” witnessing how litter and pollution were damaging American rivers and highways. Cody shed a single tear at the smoldering mess and help make throwing trash out the window a taboo. The campaign, which ran through 1983, was the favorite of veteran PSA ad man Lou Magnani’s career. “So much today is light on idea and long on delivery system,” Magnani, 86, says. Razzle-dazzle, he adds, “doesn’t mean much unless it has a gut-wrenching, humanizing message.” tinyurl.com/PSAPollution
5. The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love
When President John Kennedy created the Peace Corps in 1961, many Americans didn’t understand the program, the Ad Council says. So the council and ad agency Ted Bates &Co. created the slogan that conveyed its hardship and rewards. The slogan was promoted for 30 years; the Peace Corps is going strong in its sixth decade. tinyurl.com/PSAToughest
6. This Is Your Brain. This Is Your Brain on Drugs
Using a fried egg as a symbol of your brain on drugs, this 1987 ad is remembered by America’s advertising community as extremely influential. TV Guide named the Partnership for a Drug Free America spot one of the top 100 TV ads ever. tinyurl.com/PSABrain
7.You Can Learn a Lot From a Dummy
This series of ads, which ran from 1985 to 1999, featured a pair of comic Crash Test Dummies named Vince and Larry. The series is credited, along with new safety belt laws, with changing the public’s attitude towards belt use. Since the Crash Test Dummies were introduced, U.S. safety belt usage has increased from 14 percent to over 85 percent, saving a 260,000 lives and $3.2 billion in costs, the Ad Council estimates. tinyurl.com/PSADummy
8. Loose Lips Sink Ships
The phrase, now common, was part of War Advertising Council’s public service ad campaign encouraging Americans to stop information from being leaked to the enemy during World War II. Another slogan during the 1942-45 campaign: “Keep it Under Your Stetson.” tinyurl.com/PSALoose
9. Take a Bite out of Crime
The goal, when the campaign started in 1979, was to encourage Americans lock their doors and persuade children to refrain from getting into cars with strangers. Today McGruff the Crime Dog, created by the National Crime Prevention Council and the Ad Council, has a website and PSAs about cyber-bullying. tinyurl.com/PSAMcGruff
10. Tips From Smokers
An estimated 200,000 Americans quit smoking after seeing these purposefully terrifying series of ads in 2012, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In the ads, smokers talk bluntly about losing their voice boxes and suffering from cancer. About half of those 200,000 Americans may stay off cigarettes forever, researchers said. tinyurl.com/PSASmoking
11. Give a Hoot! Don’t Pollute
Woodsy Owl and his slogan were launched in 1971 by the Forest Service and created by a ranger who had helped on the TV series “Lassie.” Among the voices of Woodsy over the years was Sterling Holloway, the original voice of Walt Disney’s Winnie the Pooh. Three signs of Woodsy’s endurance: his own comic book and a parody in a 2010 episode of “South Park.” His updated slogan: “Lend a hand — care for the land!” tinyurl.com/PSAWoodsy
12. We Can Do It!
Rosie the Riveter began as a popular 1942 song and as a poster for Westinghouse Co.’s War Production Co-Ordinating Committee. The strong, self-sufficient J. Howard Miller image was intended to boost wartime morale. However, it was shown only to company employees during a two-week period in 1943. Later that year, Norman Rockwell popularized a similar image, also reflecting the growth in women workers during the war. Unlike the other examples, Rosie’s PSA cred did not merely endure but became magnified from the 1980s on as a symbol of women’s empowerment and feminism. tinyurl.com/PSARosie