The Ad Council Is Turning 75: Here’s A Look At Some Of Its Best Campaigns

Starting with Smokey Bear, the company’s signature PSAs have been become hallmarks of American culture–and effective change-drivers.

“Only you can prevent forest fires.” “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” “Love has no labels.” Over the course of its 75-year history, the Ad Council has coined phrases that have become so embedded in the American lexicon that many people probably drop them in conversation without even really knowing where they came from–just that they have an effect.


For the Ad Council, that lasting effect is the point. “We take on issues for the long haul, and because we can address them at scale, we’re really about creating a movement and not just focusing on something in the moment,” Lisa Sherman, the CEO of the Ad Council, tells Co.Exist.

The origins of the Ad Council trace back to 1942, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt convened the heads of major media organizations in Washington to enlist their help in creating advertising that would galvanize the country behind the war effort. “He had the foresight to understand the power of marketing and communications to have that kind of influence,” Sherman says. Victory Gardens came out of that campaign, as did the famous tag line, “lose lips sink ships.”

“It was such a successful effort that, post-war, the industry determined that this was something they could do to take on all of the most pressing and important social issues of the day,” Sherman says.

Since World War II, the Ad Council has partnered with various nonprofits and created public service announcement (PSA) campaigns that address a wide range of issues, from crime reduction to pollution to supporting minority education. The campaigns have proven effective amplifiers; a nonprofit is able to get around ten times the return on its investment through partnering with the Ad Council, Sherman says.

Though the format and style of these PSA campaigns have evolved over the years, adapting to smartphones and social media, the core of them, Sherman says, has held steady. “Everything we do is grounded in research–we set benchmarks for key insights and performance indicators to track what we’re trying to accomplish with our partners,” Sherman says. “We do so in a way that allows people to connect to the message personally, and that drives very strong results.

Take a look back at some of the Ad Council’s most noteworthy campaigns, and see how they’ve evolved through the years:


Forest Fire Prevention

Since Smokey Bear and his famous catchphrase “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” were introduced to the U.S. in 1944 through a partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service, they’ve become hallmarks of American culture (even 70 years later, in 2015, 94% of Americans still recognize Smokey). His warnings have had an effect: Since the PSA launched, the number of acres lost to forest fires annually has dropped from 22 million to 8.4 million. The above is one of the early ad spots, but Smokey’s adapted to the modern era: Smokey has over 35,000 Twitter followers, he blogs for The Huffington Post, and recently hosted his first Facebook Live event.


The image of a tear rolling down the cheek of Native American actor Iron Eyes Cody at the sight of pollution piling up in the natural landscape was once of the earliest calls to action to protect the earth. “The Crying Indian” campaign aired on the second-ever Earth Day in 1971 in partnership with Keep America Beautiful; within the first four months of its run, 100,000 people requested brochures on how to reduce pollution, and by 1983, the amount of litter dropped by as much as 88%.

Drunk Driving Prevention

In 1983, the Ad Council partnered with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and coined a phrase that’s still used today: “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” Since the launch of that PSA—and with it, the concept of a designated driver—the number of alcohol-related fatalities has declined by 17%. The 2005 campaign, “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving,” built off the earlier PSA and encouraged people to catch a ride in a taxi or take public transportation, even if they think they feel just a bit tipsy.

Adoption From Foster Care

The idea of becoming an adoptive parent is understandably daunting, but the Ad Council campaign, in partnership with AdoptUSKids, took a humorous approach, and sent the message that “you don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Since the 2004 launch, 25,000 that were listed on have been placed in a permanent home.

Autism Awareness

Early detection of autism is a critical factor in connecting kids with the resources and help they need to see improvements over their lifetime. The Ad Council’s PSA, created for Autism Speaks, has more than doubled the percent of parents who have spoken to a doctor or pediatrician about the condition since the 2006 launch of the campaign.

Bullying Prevention

Teens can be cruel, and the proof is in the statistics: More than one in four kids experience bullying each year. But 90% of teens aged 12-17 who witness this aggression unfold online do nothing about it. The Ad Council’s campaign, called I Am A Witness, launched in 2015 and gave kids a simple way to take a stand: By introducing an eye-shaped emoji that kids can post when they see online bullying, the campaign transforms teens from bystanders into people who speak up and show support for others. “This was the first time an emoji has been used for a cause,” Sherman says, but the message of empowerment is one that resonates with all of the work that the Ad Council has done throughout its history.


About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.