BOOK REVIEW: Ad Council campaigns shaped popular perceptions

MILWAUKEE JOURNAL SENTINELSeptember 22, 2013 

  • ‘HOW MCGRUFF AND THE CRYING INDIAN CHANGED AMERICA: A HISTORY OF ICONIC AD COUNCIL CAMPAIGNS’ by Wendy Melillo; Smithsonian ($27.95)

Many of the best-remembered ad campaigns of the past half-century — “Only you can prevent forest fires,” “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” “Take a bite out of crime,” the “Crying Indian” Keep America Beautiful commercials — were created by the Ad Council, a nonprofit driven by the nation’s leading advertising agencies.

In “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America,” Wendy Melillo charts the course of these ad campaigns and shows how they delivered more than public-service messages.

In 1942, a group of top ad agencies formed the council to promote advertising in general and stave off the possibility of government regulation — in part by helping the war effort.

The council’s longest-running campaign had its roots in those wartime beginnings.

To remind Americans about the cost of carelessness with fire at a time when wood was needed for the war, the U.S. Forest Service launched regional ads equating forest fires with treason. To broaden the campaign’s appeal, a designer for the council hit on the idea in 1944 of a no-nonsense but fatherly bear. Smokey Bear was born.

But even Smokey had his share of controversy, especially out West, where government management of forests was seen as an intrusion.

A theme running throughout “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America” is that the Ad Council’s campaigns often were designed to reinforce the status quo. For example, the council’s hugely successful ads for the United Negro College Fund, while reviving the nation’s historically black colleges, also bolstered the separate-but-equal approach to higher education.

The Ad Council’s campaign for Keep America Beautiful — propelled by the powerful image of an aging American Indian, in traditional garb, shedding a single tear while surveying the pollution around him — shows the council’s strengths and limitations.

The ads, begun in 1971 just as the environmental movement was gaining traction, had an immediate impact. But they also helped steer the debate toward individual responsibility and away from corporate involvement.

Melillo’s study of the Ad Council’s greatest hits — and a few misses — shows its significant role in shaping popular attitudes on some of the most important issues of our time.

Idaho Statesman is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service