Wendy O’Donovan Phillips, is CEO of Big Buzz, an agency driving focused marketing efforts for executives and teams nationwide.
In one of the Ad Council’s most recent ads, a steely-eyed woman in a trench coat emblazoned with a Red Cross badge holds up a small torch alight with a yellow and red flame. Her white wings stand out in the background, which is red on one angled side, with blue and white rays on the other. The rays stem from a light-blue globe above her head, which is encircled by the headline “Stay Safe, Stay Strong, Stay Home.”
The Ad Council emerged in 1941 as “an organization that could bring the entire advertising industry together in service of social good.” For decades, the nonprofit has partnered with advertising agencies to create campaigns that inspire our nation at pivotal times in history, and its ads have emerged as some of the most iconic of our time.
What can marketers learn from them?
• Smokey Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, the Crash Test Dummies — they have been in our living rooms, on our vacations and in our minds for years. All of these characters make broad issues relatable to truly connect with target audiences. Smokey Bear’s park ranger hat and the authoritative slogan, “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires,” suggest the brand archetype of the service provider. Voice-of-the-customer data — collected through a “name that dog” contest — gave McGruff his name. Vince and Larry, the crash test dummies, were so relatable that action figures were created based on them. You can use the same tactics — brand archetypes, voice-of-the-customer data and edutainment — to deepen relatability and inspire target audience loyalty for your brand.
• “Take the keys. Call a friend. Take a stand” reads the Ad Council’s classic drunk-driving prevention ad. The copy is in active voice. It consists of three short sentences that contain three words each. Too often in communications, we overthink things when, in fact, the message should be short, clear and simple. Strip away extraneous language to make an impact.
• From 1942 to 1945, a campaign promoted “Women in War Jobs.” In 1950, Eleanor Roosevelt and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared in anti-communism ads. In 1986, a campaign encouraged Americans to “Help stop AIDS,” and it was the first time the word “condom” was used in a commercial. In 2015, the “Love Has No Labels” campaign promoted diversity and inclusion on a national scale. The lesson from these ads? Be daring in your own advertising and marketing efforts to prevent your message from getting lost in a sea of sameness and help effect lasting change.
• You likely remember “You Could Learn A Lot from a Dummy,” “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” and “Take a Bite Out of Crime.” Entire generations have these phrases branded on their minds. Each is timeless and memorable in its own way. The Dummies’ slogan, for example, is memorable because of the paradox it presents, and the crime one for the image it conjures up. By using exactly the right language, literary techniques and plays on words, you have the power to brand critical messaging into the minds of your audience.
• With “Just Say No,” Nancy Reagan assured us we could beat the war on drugs. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign rallied Americans to work to overcome childhood obesity. And now, the “Stay Safe, Stay Strong, Stay Home” ad reminds us that we have the power to slow the spread of Covid-19. I think the lesson here is that we are a nation built on hope. It is our duty as an industry to ensure that our campaigns inspire this hope. In client work and for your own agency, be sure to align campaigns with positive brand messaging, but avoid canned safety protocol language or overused messages such as, “We’re all in this together.”
The Ad Council’s iconic ads teach us to make broad issues more relatable, keep ads simple, take risks, use the right words to be memorable, and inspire hope. In considering these lessons, which can you apply to your next campaign to make it more iconic?
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Author: Wendy O’Donovan Phillips, Forbes Councils Member