The Ad Council partners with advertising agencies which work pro bono to create the public service advertisements on behalf of their campaigns. The organization accepts requests from sponsor institutions for advertising campaigns that focus on particular social issues. To qualify, an issue must be non-partisan (though not necessarily unbiased) and have national relevance.
The Ad Council distributes the advertisements to a network of 33,000 media outlets--including broadcast, print, outdoor (i.e. billboards, bus stops), and Internet--which run the ads in donated time and space. Media outlets donate approximately $1.8 billion to Ad Council campaigns annually. If paid for, this amount would make the Ad Council one of the largest advertisers in the country.
The organization was conceived in 1941, and it was incorporated as The Advertising Council, Inc., on February 26, 1942, On June 25, 1943, it was renamed The War Advertising Council, Inc. for the purpose of mobilizing the advertising industry in support of the war effort. Early campaigns encouraged enlistment to the military, the purchase of war bonds, and conservation of war materials.
Before the conclusion of World War II President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the Ad Council continue its work during peacetime. On February 5, 1946, The War Advertising Council officially changed its name back to The Advertising Council, Inc., and shifted its focus to issues such as atomic weapons, world trade and religious tolerance. In 1945, the Ad Council began working with the National Safety Council.
The Ad Council's longtime logo, used from 1974 until 2018. It is still in use on many PSAs.
The Ad Council's first president, Theodore Repplier, assumed leadership of the organization in 1947. Robert Keim succeeded Repplier as Ad Council president from 1966 to 1987, Ruth Wooden succeeded Keim from 1987 to 1999, and Peggy Conlon succeeded Wooden from 1999 to 2014, when the current president, Lisa Sherman, began her tenure.
The Ad Council celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2012. The Ad Council released an infographic that demonstrated its impact through the years on issues including safety belts, autism, litter reduction, crime and wildfire prevention.
Savings Bond (1942-1980) The first campaign by the then War Advertising Council encouraged Americans to support the war effort by purchasing war bonds.
Security of War Information--Loose Lips Sink Ships (1942-1945) The War Advertising Council's "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and "Keep It Under Your Stetson" public service ads reminded Americans to be discreet in their communication to prevent information from being leaked to the enemy during World War II.
Wildfire Prevention (1944-present) The Ad Council's longest running campaign, Smokey Bear and his tagline, "Only You Can Prevent Forest (now Wild as of 2001) Fires", was created in 1944 to educate Americans about the harm wildfires could cause the war effort, and the danger that the Japanese might deliberately start forest fires by shelling the West Coast of the United States. It was 1947 when the iconic Smokey Bear phrase was finally coined: "Remember...only YOU can prevent forest/wild fires!" The Forest Fire Prevention campaign has helped reduce the number of acres lost annually to wildfire from 22 million to 8.4 million (in 2000).
American Red Cross (1945-1996) The Ad Council PSAs for the American Red Cross has recruited blood donors, enlisted volunteers, and raised funds for the Red Cross for more than 50 years.
Polio (1958-1961) PSAs for the polio vaccine helped get 80% of the at-risk populace fully immunized, eradicating the disease in the USA.
Peace Corps (1961-1991) PSAs featuring the tagline "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love" helped recruit thousands of volunteers to the program. In 1991, 30 percent of Peace Corps volunteers had been reached through the Ad Council's recruitment campaign.
Drunk Driving Prevention (1983-present) Intended to reduce the number of DUI accidents and alcohol-related fatalities, this campaign with the U.S. Department of Transportation has featured the taglines: "Drinking & Driving Can Kill A Friendship", "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" and "Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving".
Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies (1985-present) a campaign about safety belts. Since the introduction of this campaign, safety belt usage has increased from 14% to 79%, saving an estimated 85,000 lives, and $3.2 billion in costs to society.
The Crash Test Dummies
AIDS Prevention (1988-1990) This Ad Council ad campaign was the first to use the word "condom" in America. The PSAs informed Americans of the dangers of the HIV and encouraged them to "Help stop AIDS. Use a condom."
Domestic Violence (1994-present) The PSAs encourage people to get involved in efforts to prevent domestic violence and to intervene if they know someone in an abusive relationship. In the first year of the campaign, more than 34,000 calls were made to the Family Violence Prevention hotline.
I am an American (2001-present) a campaign launched in wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks emphasizing the diversity of America. The ad features people of many ethnicities looking in the camera and simply saying "I am an American". A slightly updated version of the ad was shown in 2011, during the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Adoption from Foster Care (2004-present) This campaign delivers the message that "You don't have to be perfect to be a perfect parent." Since the beginning of the campaign, more than 14,000 families have registered to adopt kids through the campaign Web site AdoptUSKids.org.
Autism Awareness (2006-present) The PSAs encourage parents to visit autismspeaks.org/signs to learn the signs of autism and to find out about early intervention. The campaign won an Effie Award for advertising effectiveness in 2008, a Silver Telly in 2009, a Silver Addy and Gold Ogilvy in 2011.
Gay and Lesbian Bullying Prevention (2008-present) GLSEN and Ad Council launched the first campaign to address anti-gay language among teens. PSAs feature celebrities such as Wanda Sykes, Grant Hill and Hilary Duff and ask kids to stop using homophobic language such as "That's so gay."
Love Has No Labels (2015-present) focused on diversity and inclusion, the campaign's video was among the 10 most watched videos on YouTube in 2015. The commercial for the campaign won the award for Best Commercial during at the 2016 Emmy Awards.
Fatherhood Involvement (2008-present) PSAs featuring the tagline "Take time to be a dad today" encourage fathers to play an active role in their children's lives. The campaign's "Cheerleader" PSA is one of the Ad Council's most popular PSAs and has earned $9.7 million in donated media since 2008.
The "We Can Do It!" poster was used by the Ad Council for its 70th anniversary celebration, through a Facebook app called "Rosify Yourself". However, the historic image was not produced by the War Advertising Council.
The Ad Council claimed the 1943 "We Can Do It!" poster (associated with Rosie the Riveter after 1982) was developed by the WAC as part of its "Women in War Jobs" campaign. In February 2012 during the Ad Council's 70th anniversary celebration, an interactive application designed by Animax's HelpsGood digital agency was linked to the Ad Council's Facebook page. The Facebook app was called "Rosify Yourself" and it allowed viewers to upload images of their faces to be incorporated into the "We Can Do It!" poster, then saved to be shared with friends. Ad Council President and CEO Peggy Conlon posted her own "Rosified" face on The Huffington Post in an article about the Ad Council's past 70 years of public service. The staff of the TV show Today posted two "Rosified" images on their Web site, using the faces of news anchors Matt Lauer and Ann Curry. However, the now-famous poster was actually produced by an internal Westinghouse Electric Corporation corporate program as part of a series of posters shown to Westinghouse employees for two weeks then discarded. It was not produced by the Ad Council nor was it used for recruiting women workers.
Organizations with campaigns done by the Ad Council
Given the Ad Council's historically close collaboration with the President of the United States and the federal government, it has been labeled by historian Robert Griffith as "little more than a domestic propaganda arm of the federal government."
The Ad Council has been further criticized for distracting the public by focusing on individual lifestyle changes, rather than on the need to fix social problems by changing institutions, such as the Ad Council's many corporate sponsors, or the government and military, whose campaigns the Ad Council has also promoted.
Ad Council spots are used to fill unsold air time by stations and networks. Political talk shows often have advertising time either controlled by the local station or a program's syndicating network that goes unsold; this is often filled by promotions for other programming on a station, short segments, and public service announcements, including from the Ad Council. Activists unfamiliar with the ad model of these programs or that of the Ad Council often complain to the Ad Council itself, along with the organizations which coordinate their messages with the Ad Council such as the AARP, leading the Ad Council and the organizations to disclaim they do not share the views of the hosts where their announcements air, and have little to no control about where they may be scheduled to air.
^"Frequently Asked Questions". Ad Council. Retrieved 2012. Working in tandem with the Office of War Information, the Ad Council created campaigns such as Buy War Bonds, Plant Victory Gardens, 'Loose Lips Sink Ships,' and Rosie the Riveter's 'We Can Do it.'