Smokey Rejoice: Recession Doesn't Hurt Public Service Ads

PHOTO This poster from the U.S. Agriculture Dept. web site shows Smokey Bear in a poster.USDA/AP Photo
This poster from the U.S. Agriculture Dept. web site shows Smokey Bear in a poster.

Remember Smokey the Bear, the crash test dummies named Vince and Larry and McGruff, the Crime Dog? These classic characters from nonprofit advertising campaigns were popular and inventive enough to rival any corporate mascot, from Mr. Clean to Tony the Tiger.

But the difference between Smokey and Tony was that the Smokey the Bear forest fire campaign was made possible by donations – advertising agencies donating their time and talent to create memorable spots. Media companies also play a part in making nonprofit ads possible – they donate airtime and space.

These days, of course, are tough ones for both ad agencies and media outlets alike, as they struggle with layoffs and shrinking profits. One could easily conclude that cash-strapped ad and media companies have less to donate – so does that mean the future is cloudy for future Smokeys?

Actually, the answer is no.

In spite of the current economic challenges facing companies, advertising agencies and media outlets continue their longstanding partnership to assist non-profit organizations with free creative services and media. According to the Ad Council and The Partnership For A Drug Free America (PDFA), media space donations have increased and agency participation has held steady.

We all are familiar with campaigns from the Ad Council and PDFA. (Disclosure note: My advertising agency, Vigilante, has created TV spots for The Ad Council and PDFA.) The United Negro College Fund has helped Historically Black Colleges (HBC's) raise more than 2.2 billion dollars with the now famous slogan "A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste," written by a copywriter at ad agency Young and Rubicam. Nearly 70 percent of Americans say they have personally stopped someone from drinking and driving. Much credit must go to the Ad Council campaign "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk."

Pro Bono: 'This Is Your Brain on Drugs'

Smokey the Bear, the crash test dummies and McGruff are all courtesy of advertising agency donations to the Ad Council. A spot showing an egg frying in a pan with the voice-over: "This is your brain on drugs" was one of the most recognizable pro bono spots ever created for the PDFA.

The latest public service ads that could catch fire might be the Ad Council's The Shelter Pet Project campaign, which includes spots featuring spunky, talking animals.

The Ad Council and the PDFA coordinate between the advertising agencies who volunteer their time and TV, radio, print and internet media who donate time and space. The Ad Council focuses on public service campaigns for a wide variety of non-profit organizations and government agencies. The PDFA specifically targets illegal drugs and focuses on helping young people make the decision to abstain from their use.

In spite of the recession, non-profits such as the Ad Council and the PDFA may be seeing an overall increase in their public profiles due to the increase in advertisers to use cause marketing (i.e. tying part of their marketing efforts to charitable causes). Many marketers believe that future best practices for companies will include clear communication to consumers about how they are giving back.

Another reason is that during this year when ad sales were down, media outlets donated excess inventory to non-profits.

This growth in non-profit advertising has spawned some innovation. Google is awarding Google Grants to non-profits enabling them to raise awareness of their charities using free AdWords. There is at least one advertising agency, Serve, that has created a business out of serving non-profits. The premise is that ad agencies generally donate a spot, poster or ad, but not necessarily the ongoing strategy and planning needed to be truly successful over time. MediaTile Company has teamed with The Ad Council to expand public service announcements to digital signage networks around the country. The Ad Council has also entered the social media space with

About five years ago much fanfare was made about the convergence of entertainment and advertising spawning branded entertainment. Since that time we have seen an almost complete breakdown of the boundaries between what is news, what is marketing and what is entertainment: Presidential candidates campaign on late night talk shows, celebrities bare their personal lives in reality TV shows and brands are becoming even more heavily involved in the scripts of TV Shows.

As digital media continues to proliferate, Cause Marketing continues to grow and a generation of young people becomes more and more concerned about the planet. Perhaps we will see a similar convergence where cause related marketing, PSAs and quality of life advertising come together to educate, raise awareness, entertain and yes, even sell.

After 9-11, the Ad Council used $29 million in donated media to run the " I Am An American Campaign" highlighting America's diversity. The PSAs began airing just ten days after the terrorist attacks. After Hurricane Katrina a campaign was developed called "The Generous Nation 'Don't Almost Give'" focusing on increasing donations and volunteerism.

Now, even as the weak economy has forced advertising agencies and media companies to cut staff and costs, they continue to support a long tradition of pro-bono giving. Reminds me of the slogan of one of my favorite charities: "Give 'Til It Hurts."

The work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

Larry Woodard is president and CEO of Vigilante, a New York-based advertising agency that develops consumer-centric advertising campaigns. He is also chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies New York Council and the recipient of many prestigious industry awards, including two O'Toole Awards for Agency of the Year, the London International Award, Gold Effie, Telly, Mobius, Addy's and the Cannes Gold Lion. A blogger and a frequent public speaker, Woodard enjoys discussing the intersection of media, politics, entertainment and technology.