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.

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.

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