How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America
Guest: Wendy Melillo. September 28, 2013. Transcribed by Curtis Whiting
Coiro: Advertising companies strive for that magic combination of imagery and zeitgeist that creates immortal icons in America’s cultural memory. The first American VW print ad; Apple’s 1984 Macintosh TV ad, that had the Olympic Athlete smashing a screen full of Big Brother. Some of the most entrenched American advertising icons weren’t overtly selling products, though. The TV one’s particularly. The famous crying Indian, exhorting people not to pollute; Smokey Bear, gently pounding into hundreds of millions of brains that “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires;” while a Humphrey Bogart-like McGruff, the Crime Dog urged us all to “Take A Bite Out Of Crime.” All those TV spots ended with a logo at the bottom and a voice-over, “Brought to you by the Ad Council.
My guest, Wendy Melillo, has taken a good, long look at these, and other ad council campaigns. In her new book, she examines the roots of the council itself, including its early incarnation as the War Advertising Council, and the political and corporate influences on what messages hit the airwaves, how and when. Her book is “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America, A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns.” Wendy Melillo, welcome.
Melillo: Thank you so much for having me.
Coiro: Wendy Melillo was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work covering the United Way scandal, for the Washington Post. She’s now writing for Mediapost.com and is a professor of Public Communication at American University in Washington, D.C.
The Ad Council – It’s funny. The origins of the Ad Council reminded me of the origins of the movie codes, because people started having to behave on the movie screens because, the movie titans knew, if they didn’t tighten up the ship themselves, the government would come in and do it for them. And, there are echoes of that in how the Ad Council eventually influenced what campaigns would be hitting the airwaves. Essentially trying to be good and do good, before the government made them do that. Is that accurate?
Melillo: Yes. The Ad Council’s a non-profit organization. But, in the book, I call it a brilliant public relations move on behalf of the advertising industry. Because, in the late 30s you had a consumer backlash against advertising. People were upset about, you know, trying to sell us goods and services that we didn’t need. And so, the advertising industry got together and created the Ad Council. And, what a perfect opportunity, that World War II presented, because they were able to showcase how the advertising industry could help America in a time of war.
Coiro: I’m boggled at the thought of an American culture that protests to being sold things via advertising. That’s a different world.
Melillo: Yes. You have to think about it. I mean, advertising was still in its infancy. It wasn’t – Of course, we had it in newspapers, but there were a number of books that came out at the time, in the 1930s, where people were really questioning a lot of the potions that were being hawked as cure-alls for everything. So, there was a real consumer backlash against the advertising industry. When we got to 1942, when the Ad Council was created, the industry was concerned. It really wanted to participate in a way that the government would find helpful.
Coiro: And the government had its own hands full, at the time. Moving on, into the early 1940s, of course, they had big concerns about what was happening overseas. And, as has always been true in politics, it’s very important to have the national mood with you. So, the government coupling with the Ad Council in these pre-war days – What were its goals, and why did it think the Ad Council could help it out?
Melillo: Because it needed a communication messages that were patriotic in tone that would get Americans to buy War Bonds, plant victory gardens, be careful about what they said, because “Loose Lips can Sink Ships.” And, the government was quite concerned when a Japanese submarine attack, off the California Coast, ignited a small fire and they became very concerned about our national forests, because we needed the lumber to build battleships and guns to fight the war.
And so, that was the origins of the National Fire Prevention campaign, which later became known as Smokey. Smokey was not introduced until 1944, but the fire prevention campaign began in 42.
Coiro: It’s funny. Smokey Bear had a couple of revelations for me. But, maybe the most profound for me was that his middle name isn’t “The.” I guess I spent all my life thinking he was Smokey The Bear.
Melillo: Like many others. There was a song, a popular song, that called him Smokey The Bear, and it just kind of caught on. But, there wasn’t a “The” in the original name.
Coiro: But, he’s also an image of controversy. I had no idea. Because, I grew up with this benevolent bear telling us why we shouldn’t all burn parts of the planet down. And, it never occurred to me that he would incur the wrath of anyone. Who objected, or maybe still objects, to Smokey Bear?
Melillo: That was one of the more surprising things I found in my research. Because, like you, I thought, who doesn’t love Smokey Bear? He’s very iconic and endearing, warm and fuzzy. But, one of the points I try to make in the book is some of these public service ad campaigns are not as warm and fuzzy as we’d like to think they are. And, in this case, Smokey has a fire suppression message. And, to the people who live off the land, who burn parts of the land, who burn parts of the forest to plant crops, or to allow their cattle to graze, they view Smokey as someone who prevents them from life – interferes with their livelihood. And, that’s a very complicated notion. He’s not loved by everybody. These campaigns don’t exist in a vacuum. Audiences react to them. And there are audiences that find a symbol of the U.S. Government. And for people like Native Americans and Chicanos, who feel the land was stolen from them, he represents that. Which is fascinating. I found that research very interesting.
Coiro: Jumping ahead in the story, I’m going to come back to Smokey Bear, but it was many, many years later, when someone actually took to research the impact of Smokey Bear. And at that point, realized that there really hadn’t been parallel efforts to research what happened with the Crying Indian, or what was the effect of these various other icons and campaigns. Was the Ad Council putting these out and hoping for the best? Did they have any pre-release market survey? Or am I just imposing a really modern filter on what they were doing here?
Melillo: Well, you have to think that about it, it all takes place in the context of the time. So, Smokey’s 1942. Today, the Ad Council does a lot of research before it puts out a campaign. Let’s understand. It’s the premiere public service advertising organization in the country. And, I certainly want to give it its due for that. I just also think it’s very interesting that we need to understand that these campaigns have an impact. And, they’re not as positive, all the time, as the media portrays them. So, back then, when it started, you had a very patriotic notion. The campaigns that ran during World War II were considered government propaganda campaigns. Because they were done on behalf of the federal government to promote the federal governments agenda. Which, in this case, was to win a war. The Ad Council made a decision that it wanted to exist after World War II. And, so, there was a transition. What I found fascinating was it transitioned, but there were examples where it continued to promote a government agenda.
The Crusade for Freedom campaign is a classic example of that, because this was actually a campaign, the outward appearance was to raise money on behalf of radio-free Europe and Radio Liberty. In reality, this campaign was secretly funded by the CIA to target American citizens with message to get them to fight communism.
Coiro: Let me make sure I understand this properly. This is the government using an ignorant or innocent Ad Council? Or was collusion between the two?
Melillo: I never found any evidence that the Ad Council absolutely knew exactly what was going on. So, I really can’t say that the people involved at the time actually knew of the secret CIA connection. Because, that connection was not made public until later, in 1968.
Coiro: Was the Ad Council, at any point, an official arm of the government? Or did it have government officials in it? Or was it always independent of the government, at least ostensibly?
Melillo: Ostensibly independent. And, that’s one of the questions that gets raised in the book. It does a work, still to this day, on behalf of the federal government. And, at what point does it become – If a lot of the money that it derives from these campaigns come from taxpayer dollars – One of the questions I raise in the book is, at what point does it then become a quasi-government agency and not a separate non-profit?
Coiro: Before we conclude this segment, I want to not leave Smokey Bear hanging. So, we heard that he became a controversial icon and that there were groups that very much objected to how the image was used. I understand he’s still out there to some extent. How has Smokey, and the use of the Smokey image changed, in response to those concerns?
Melillo: The slogan has stayed pretty much the same. They have only changed the slogan once, from “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” to “Only You can Prevent Wild Fires.” That change took place in 2001. So, the slogan’s been pretty consistant. The image of Smokey himself has undergone various incarnations. We’ve got the iconic Smokey, with the blue jeans and forest ranger hat, he has also moved into a period where he was quite muscular. One of the more recent campaigns was kind of a A-Rod/Smokey look. A very muscular upper torso. He still had the hat on, but the campaign was called “Get Your Smokey On.”
And, that campaign existed up until just very recently, over the summer in July. The Ad Council and the U.S. Forest Service released new advertising for Smokey and, guess what – Smokey is back to iconic Smokey. And, he’s hugging people in the forest for putting out their campfire and doing good deeds.
Coiro: Kind of a touchy-feely Alan Alda style Smokey.
Melillo: Yeah, because, think about it. There’s a very interesting piece where, the first two years of the fire prevention campaign were quite scary. The Posters. The first one had the face of a Japanese soldier with an evil grin on his face, holding a match against the backdrop of a burning forest. And the slogan said, “Careless Matches Aid The Axis.” Well, that kind of thing scares children and schoolteachers, right? So, when they wanted the campaign to continue beyond the ceasefire, they needed a more loveable, warm image. They briefly toyed with Bambi, but Bambi’s owned by the Walt Disney Company and there’s all kinds of issues that arose there. That was clearly not going to be a permanent solution. So, they ended up coming up with the image of a bears.
Coiro: My guest is Wendy Melillo. You can find her writing at Mediapost.com. We’ll link to that and everything else we discuss this hour, at our site, indeepradio.com. Currently, we’re talking about her new book, “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America, A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns.” It’s out, right now, from Smithsonian Books.
We were talking a little bit about the war years, the 1940s. One of the most enduring images, from the 1940s, you can buy it in posters anywhere, is the woman with her head up in a work rag, and she’s got a work suit on, and she’s flexing he bicep and saying “We Can Do It.” And, I think, most of us grew up with the idea that, had we been around in the 40s, we would have seen that image everywhere. But, that’s not what happened.
Melillo: No. This was another one of those great surprises for me in the research. The poster itself, which says, “We Can Do It,” as she flexes her muscle, was actually not an Ad Council poster. It was not done on behalf of the women power campaign for the war manpower commission back in the war. The whole point of that campaign was to encourage women to work, to replace the labor needed when men went off to fight the war. And, this poster itself actually was done by a Pittsburgh freelance artist for Westinghouse. It was a worker productivity poster that hung in the Westinghouse factory on the wall for two weeks in February in 42. And, the only people who saw it were the workers. This was one of the big surprises to me, because when I was the D.C. Bureau Chief for Adweek, I covered the Ad Council. I thought I knew this stuff. It turns out, I really didn’t. So, I ended up in the chapter, having to write two stories. One about the campaign that I intended to write about, but the second one I had to write about the history of this poster. I discovered that the Ad Council had been using it in its publicity documents for at least a decade. And, I believed it. I picked the chapters based on the iconic images, right? This is what we remember. So, that was a big surprise.
Coiro: So, they took it and adopted it for later use? Or they just stuck it in their files and said “Hey, that was ours”?
Melillo: I think, in fairness to the Ad Council, ’cause I did try to get to the bottom of it, there was a mention in an early history of the organization – that dated from, like 1942 to 1950 – And, the historian, who was one of the founding members of the Ad Council, made a note about Rosie the Riveter. And, based on that, the Ad Council staff thought that the poster was actually done by the ad agency J. Walter Thompson, now called JWT, on behalf of the woman power campaign. First sign that perhaps the story was not how I understood it, was doing research at the Ad Council archives at the University of Illinois and they had absolutely no Rosie the Riveter images.
Coiro: That’s fascinating.
Melillo: So, there was a reason why. Because that poster did not belong to the Ad Council or the campaign.
Coiro: The Ad Council archives – That must be something you could just get lost in for days.
Melillo: It’s a wonderful little place at the University of Illinois. It’s where the archives are kept. And I had good trips there. Yes. When you dip your hand into a box and pull out files you never know what you’re going to find. And, some people don’t like the dusty, dirty work. I loved. I thought it was just so exciting.
Coiro: Were there any images that you came across, either from these war years that we’re discussing now, or from subsequent decades, where you’re surprised it’s an image that didn’t endure, that didn’t become iconic. Surely they put out more work than the stuff that has risen to the top of our cultural memory.
Melillo: Yeah. I loved some of the work J. Walter Thompson did for this campaign. The woman power campaign we’re talking about, right now. And, always wondered why the Ad Council didn’t showcase it. I think part of it has to do with – you know, you have to remember the time period.. These are newspaper print ads or posters. There’s a lot of words in them. We are very much in visual world, right now, with digital communication. And so, some of it may not translate as well.
But, I absolutely loved some of it. One example is, :Last Night, I Listened to the Clock,” which just has about three paragraphs of texts, which by today’s standards is like, Oh, My God, that’s way to wordy. But, it has a grandfather clock, it has a pipe and a woman’s face. She is talking about what life has been like since her husband went to war. How she felt that the way she could cope with this was to go and take a job. The slogan reads, “The More Women At Work, The Sooner We’ll Win.”
And, I’m like, Why not put that up on your classic section on your web site? I think people would love that. But, I can’t speak for the Ad Council.
Coiro: Yeah, understandably. So, their web site, you can[???] go in there and cruise and see some limited amount of their historical selection.
Melillo: Yes. And one of the interesting things I noted was, the “We Can Do It” poster was up there until I started asking questions about it. And, as of September 2012, it was taken down.
Coiro: Well, you’re their new best friend, I’m sure. Talking to Wendy Melillo about her new book, “How McGruff and the Crying Indian changed America.” Let’s talk about McGruff. McGruff clearly had his roots in the iconic noir detectives. He’s got the trench coat and he ’s got a little Shelock Holmes cap. He clearly came from a bunch of old images hashed together for a new purpose.
Melillo: Yes. McGruff is a classic. He’s actually based on Peter Falk, the actor’s Columbo interpretation, if you remember Columbo. Columbo had a deep, gravelly voice, he had the trench coat that he was always wearing. Often it was stained. And, McGruff’s trench coat has jelly stains on it, he’s got that deep gravelly voice. And, The opening spot is one of the best because it’s called “Stop a Crime,” and it debuted in February 1980, and it’s actually shot from the perspective of you, the viewer, are inside the house, and the door opens and McGruff comes in. He says, “You know what I think,” in that raspy voice of his, “I think you forgot to lock your door.” It’s just great. It’s like “Lock your door. Take a bite out of crime.” There’s just some really memorable stuff.
Now, what I like a lot about this campaign is, one of the few Ad Council campaigns that I discovered, that actually had independent research done on effectiveness. Because the Ad Council does a lot of it’s own research on effectiveness, but it takes a lot of money to study this stuff. And the Department of Justice actually gave a grant to a professor, an academic, who studied this campaign very carefully and wrote a book on it and found that it actually was quite effective.
Coiro: That’s the mistake I was making earlier. I confused him with Smokey Bear. McGruff. McGruff and Smokey Bear should not be confused, so my apologies for that.
It was – The looking back to the effectiveness was about McGruff. What was going on in society that produced McGruff? And, what went into his production? What ideas, what powers came together to get him out there?
Melillo: Well, you have to look at the society at the time, the late 1970s. One of the top concerns in public opinion polls was crime. Although it may have been on the top of the public opinion polls, Americans, when asked “Do you want to spend more taxpayer money to give to police to fight crime?” the answer was no. They didn’t want that. They were quite concerned about it. So, one of the effects of McGruff, which was so great is spawned a lot of neighborhood watch movements, which were very important because people got out at night. They walked the streets with their neighborhoods with their flashlight and their walkie talkies. If you can think of the conference[???] of the walkie talkie, back then, and they reported on incidents of crime. Or anything that looked suspicious. It gave the police, who were overworked and underpaid, extra sets of eyes.
The police could not be everywhere. McGruff spawned that neighborhood watch movement, which was so important.
Coiro: When you say he spawned it, did that happen spontaneously? Or was that something that they specifically set out as part of the campaign to get these things organized?
Melillo: There was an effort, with McGruff encouraging people to keep an eye. In a spot called “The Gilstraps,” McGruff is seen talking to a neighbor who’s watching a truck pull up outside their neightbor’s house, who are away and then, basically, they’re unloading the house. They’re stealing everything in the house. And the neighbors are like, “Wait! They’re on vacation! Who’s taking all their stuff?” And then, they report it. So, there was a real effort in the spots that provided an impetus to people to go out and take a look at what was happening.
Coiro: We talked about the Japanese Submarine, and forest fires, and now crime. And you can see where some of these campaigns would rise to the top. You can see where a need is identified. What happens between the time a need is identified and the time that the Ad Council says that’s the one we’re going to do -That’s the one that’s worth our time and our money and our production values?
Melillo: Today, it has several committees. One of the committees is a public advisory committee, where it entertains requests from organizations and also comes up with ideas on its own. So people, like non-profit groups can apply for a campaign. It costs $2.4 to $3 million dollar for a three year effort. So, not every non-profit can afford the price. But the Ad Council gives you a lot for that.
There’s research involved, there’s all the creative etcetera. So, it’s two pronged: Non-profits can a campaign and then the Ad Council has its own wish list of causes that it wants to do something about. It goes through a process internally. It’s signed off by the Ad Council’s board. And then it can go into production, so to speak.
I attended some of the committees, and what I found was the Ad Council’s very, very careful. It’s very cautious. It’s very conservative. And it’s certainly non-partisan. It doesn’t want anything controversial. There are good reasons for that. It’s not necessarily the Ad Council’s fault.
It relies on broadcasters, TV stations, radio stations, to air this stuff, free of charge, pro bono. And, if anything is too controversial and broadcasters get complaints, their simply not going to air it.
Coiro: Have there been controversial from the Ad Council before, that they learned that lesson from?
Melillo: I’m sure they exist. Did they tell me about them? No.
Coiro: Okay. Nothing that splashed headlines across the media.
Melillo: No. I understand their position. That’s not meant as a criticism.
Coiro: Of course. Let’s talk about the Crying Indian. For some reason, that image – I was very young when that came out – But I actually remember – I’m talking toddler, at most, and I actually remember my mom talking about how moving that image was. She would look at it with a sigh and say “Oh, that is so sad.” And, for those who didn’t see the crying Indian campaign, can you describe it first? And then we’ll talk about it a bit.
Melillo: Sure. The famous 1971 spot opens with the image of an American Indian paddling a canoe up the river. The river grows increasingly more polluted, full of garbage, with each stroke of this oar. He arrives at the beach, pulls his canoe up, gets out, starts walking. As he’s walking, someone tosses a bag of garbage at his feet. And then the announcer comes on and says “Some people have a deep and abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country and some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.”
Coiro: And, he turns his face to the camera and he has one tear going down his weathered cheek.
Melillo: As the bag of garbage is tossed at his feet, you see that very memorable tear. And, I have to tell you, this won all kinds of advertising awards. It was loved. It was loved by the ad industry.
Coiro: And then, it got a little more complicated when people find out that, for one thing, that single tear was actually rolling down an Italian cheek, as opposed to a Cherokee cheek.
Melillo: There’s a number of surprises in this one. Let’s start with that. At the time the ad agency really wanted an American Indian. And, they thought they got one, in the form of actor Iron Eyes Cody. It wasn’t the ad agency’s fault. It wasn’t the Ad Council’s fault. Iron Eyes Cody portrayed himself as a Native American. That’s how he promoted himself. It only came out afterward that, in reality, the guy was of Italian descent.
Coiro: His birth name was so clearly a Paisan. All three names.
Melillo: Exactly. His birth name, once you read the actual birth name. But, people didn’t know that. He portrayed himself as a Native American. So, there was that. The second most surprising thing, to me, was who the sponsoring organization actually was. It has this wonderful name, called “Keep America Beautiful.” It sounds great. But, the reality of this organization is not your grass roots Sierra Club, type of organization. As the ad industry is applauding the creativity of the ad itself, environmental groups are crying foul, because this organization is made up – and still to this day, it’s a non-profit based in Stamford, Connecticut. Keep America Beautiful is made up of the Packaged Goods Manufacturers in this country. They’re the ones that make the packaging and the chemicals that can go into the packaging that ultimately wind up in our garbage stream. The likes of Coca Cola, Pepsi Cola, Nestle Waters, the American Chemistry Council, Reynolds Aluminum, Etcetera.
And so, the environmental groups are saying, “Wait a minute! People start pollution, people can stop it? The responsibility is place on the individual citizen to pick up their litter, clean up their garbage, and what about the role of corporations in helping to solve this complex problems? What about the role of the federal government? Why is it only individuals that are being targeted in an Ad Council campaign?
Coiro: From that same era, I remember ads with the smoke pouring out of the stacks. I got the impression very young that companies, in fact, were contributing a lot to pollution. How valid was that criticism that this was a deck stacked in favor of corporations.
Melillo: It’s a valid criticism, certainly because I don’t think people understand who is behind the organization, “Keep America Beautiful.” That requires doing some digging and being media literate. I just don’t think that’s very obvious to people when they hear those messages. That’s point number one. Secondly, this played right into what the Ad Council’s public service advertising model is. It only speaks to the individual actions people can take. The message in all its campaigns target individual actions. That gets back to the way the donated medium works. Broadcasters don’t want the controversy, so imagine if an Ad Council campaign targeted corporations. And some of those corporations happen to be advertisers on NBC, CBS, ABC, Etcetera. So, this limit’s the Ad Council’s ability to do edgier type of advertising, because it cannot be controversial. This particular campaign is most illustrative of the limitations of the Ad Council’s public service model because of that very point, that it’s focused on individual actions.
Coiro: One of the campaigns that you go into depth about is the United Negro College Fund. That was really an example of how all things aren’t as they appear. The points being made by the ad and the social morés that were actually being underlined that really didn’t appear obvious at first glance. Talk about those.
Melillo: The United Negro College Fund, and “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” is a wonderful campaign. This campaign did more for historically Black colleges and universities in this country. It took a lot of courage to get this campaign going, because you have to think about the time period. It’s 1972. Vernon Jordan is the new head of the United Negro College Fund. He wants to do something on behalf of these historically Black colleges, so he goes to the Ad Council and requests a campaign. Using his network, he knew some people at the ad agency then called Young and Rubicam, now Y&R, and so he passionately spoke on behalf of this cause.
At first, the Ad Council was resistant and reluctant. That’s an interesting story in and of itself, because at the time, it was all about integration. We had Brown versus Board of Education in 1954 and we were coming out of a decade of tumultuous race rioting. The country was on a movement toward integrating the races. And then, here comes Vernon Jordan and the United Negro College Fund asking for a fundraising campaign that would essentially support a separatist notion of historically Black colleges and universities, in this country. He had a bit of a dilemma on his hands. And the second reason the Ad Council was reluctant, was because this was a fund-raising campaign. How do you say yes to this cause and then say no to every other worthy and worthwhile cause out there. It put the Ad Council in a bit of a spot.
He fought very hard. It took the better part of the day. In the end, he prevailed. This campaign has done more to help African Americans get an education when they might not have had any other opportunity to do so.
Coiro: I wonder if I’m one of so many people who saw that ad growing up and never, for a moment, thought about the fact that it was promoting separation, per se.
Melillo: Well, you don’t think of that notion, because you don’t quite get the fact that there are all of these historically Black colleges who played a huge role in their communities as well as providing an education to people that might not have had any other opportunity to go to college. If you think about the very powerful 1972 TV spot called “Don’t Waste a Mind,” it opens with the face of a young Black man and that face slowly fades. It’s so powerful because the announcer says “There are people born every day who can make peace, cure disease, create art, abolish injustice,” and he goes on. “But they may never get a chance, because they didn’t get an education. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” And then, it encourages people to give to the college fund.
Coiro: I find myself wondering if, by looking at all of these and saying they’re ad council spots, were the people who did the incredible creative work behind them, have their names fallen by the wayside? Are they noted for their individual contribution? Whoever came up with that spot was brilliant. I wonder if they’r hailed individually, or just as a member of, or working for, the Ad Council.
Melillo: No, I think people in the advertising industry really know who these people are. I have to think, working on a pro-bono account, or an Ad Council campaign, is considered a real honor in the advertising industry. Ad agencies really covet these accounts and they showcase them. Because this is advertising that can make a difference, right? This is advertising that could help us solve our societal problems. Very different from selling soap or toothpaste, or laundry detergent. I do think that these are very well regarded accounts. Hopefully, my story about the copywriter at Y&R Forest Lawn, who came up with that “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” slogan, helps perpetuate and give these people the recognition they deserve.
Coiro: And, some of these campaigns, some of those slogans, move right on through history. They literally can stick around. “Only You Can Prevent Wild Fires.” Even though it started as Forest Fires. That lasted decades. And, Smokey Bear is still around. But, we’re seeing a difference in how they’re distributed, and how much time networks are willing to give up to these. So, let’s talk first about how these get scheduled. What goes between the time the Ad Council completes the ad and when it shows up on our TV and how often it shows up on our TV.
Melillo: The Ad Council has relationships with media companies and for placement of these spots and they are pro-bono placements. The Ad Council likes the placement of its ads, but you have to understand that this is the premiere organization. When people in this business talk about the Ad Council, this is considered the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. These spots get good placement, because it is a reputable organization that is requesting the space.
That said, you have media companies who don’t want to give up as much of this space anymore. I disagree with the Ad Council on this one. If you take a look at the numbers, public service ads, since deregulation of the telecommunications industry in the 1980s, their not getting as much airtime as they once got. Now, the Ad Council will argue that its spots are getting great play and they don’t see a decrease. That’s because it’s an Ad Council spot. But, over all, we are seeing a decline, because the networks, broadcasters are not under any federal requirement to air a public service ad.
Coiro: So, whereas the Ad Council has those relationships already established, where the networks are not going to turn their backs on the Ad Council, per se, it’s the rest of the pie that’s shrinking. The one for the independent groups or for the Sierra Club, or whomever. They don’t get their PSA’s out there. It’s harder and harder to get that space, because broadcasters are no longer required to do it. They used to count it as part of their public interest obligations, prior to deregulation. But. Once the public interest requirement was dropped, they are under no obligation to run this stuff. And, in fact, the trend that you’re seeing is how the networks like to promote their own charities, using their own actors. Which ultimately are promotions for their own shows, in essence. How much public service is really being done there? That tends to be very controversial. Think of CBS Cares, or NBC’s “The More You Know.” They have their own actors, from their own shows doing this king of thing.
Coiro: And they also tend to be very short. “The More You Know,” I think those things go by in definitely less than ten seconds. Perhaps as little as five seconds. That’s very different than giving a 30 second chunk to even the Ad Council.
Melillo: Yeah. And a lot of times, these things run in what we call a graveyard shift. Midnight to six a.m. How many people are really watching. If you take a look at what’s happening in prime time, it’s trouble. The Kaiser family foundation did two very good reports called “Shouting to be Heard,“ trying to track this. The Ad Council disputes the methodology used in those reports.
But I have to say, I looked at the entire picture. Even the broadcaster’s own reports on this. They count not just public service ads, but they count their local community events. Their “Cupcake and bake sales, etcetera” done on behalf of local groups. They count that as public service. Is that a true representation of what we’re seeing? The second point that we as American’s all need to be aware of is, we have a changing communications landscape, that makes it much harder to get national recognition for this stuff.
The Ad Council will say, “You know what, Wendy, it doesn’t matter. As long as we are reaching the target audience, we are raising awareness, we’re getting that target audience to change behavior, then we’re doing our job. I think it does matter. I don’t know if you can introduce a Smokey today and have that campaign go on to become the iconic image that Smokey now is. I worry about that.
Coiro: That anticipates one of the questions I have for you. We’ve talked about all these iconic ads and the most recent one of those, I believe, is McGruff. What’s come out since McGruff, that’s been engrained into the public consciousness that way?
Melillo: I think it’s hard to answer that question. I think you now have to go looking for this stuff, ‘cause it’s just not going to come to you the way it was. The audiences are too fragmented, their in too many different places. You have to go to the Ad Council’s web site to find – one of the best one’s lately is the cheerleading one, done on behalf of the federal government’s Department of Health and Human Services, encouraging fathers to get more involved with their children. But not everybody knows that stuff anymore. Not the way we know Smokey. Not the way we know the Crying Indian. It speaks to the question of relevance. I worry about that. The Ad Council sees the answer in social media. Everybody’s still trying to figure out social media. Print Journalism, newspapers are trying to figure out how do we continue to make our product relevant in a digital age.
Relevancy is a big concern. This is my opinion, based on all of my research in this book. It does differ from the Ad Council’s. You should ask the Ad Council it’s point of view, but I don’t know that social media can give us the iconic images that we have had.
Coiro: Is that Ad Council moving into say, placing ads on web sites instead of placing them on TV?
Melillo: Absolutely. If you look at what they’ve done with Smokey. Smokey has a Facebook account, a Twitter account, it’s doing a number of different things to try and continue to make the campaign, the message and the image relevant. And, I think that’s critically important. But, we all need to pay attention to this, because this is an important resource that we have in this country. Is it perfect? No. Could it be improved? Absolutely. There are limitations. I point those limitations out in my book. But, this is a resource that we don’t to go away. We need to pay attention to this. Because, if we’re not all seeing this stuff, how relevant is it going to be? We use seatbelts because of public service advertising campaigns. You know, the buckle up campaign with the Vince and Larry Crash Dummies. It’s very important.
Coiro: That’s who we didn’t talk about, was Vince and Larry. So, that would be the most recent one that I think has probably saturated the public to that effect.
Melillo: No, it’s not even that. The Ad Council has done more than 400 campaigns since 1942. And I had to pick. It was really hard. There were so many I did not get in here. The Vince and Larry Crash Dummies are one, I would have loved to have done Polio, Peace Corps, The Freedom Campaign following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, those are 4 that are still on my list, if I ever update the book. Those are the four I’ll take a look at first. But, deadlines are deadlines. We all know that.
Coiro: Well, I can book you now for the fifth anniversary editon. I’d love to do that, because this has been a great hour.
Wendy Melillo, Thank you so much. This has been really great.
Melillo: Oh, thank you.
Coiro: We’re going to put links on our web site to everything we’ve discussed, including the book itself, of course, “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America, A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns, and Wendy Melillo is still writing on the media campaigns, institutions, our society. You can find all of that media post.com