Public Service Advertising
William M. O'Barr
[Editor's Note:This article is a part of ADText A revised version of this article is available here.]
The need to mobilize the public to take action for the good of the community is as old as governance itself. In other times and places, different techniques were used—rams' horns, town criers, church bells, and even word of mouth. In modern times, the mass media provide an important vehicle for calling on citizens to act in their best interests and those of society. Many such messages are delivered as public service advertisements (PSAs). Smokey Bear warns about forest fires. Crime Dog McGruff asks us to "take a bite out of crime." A Native American pleads with us to take care of the environment. What these—and other—public service campaigns have in common is that they use the techniques developed for the promotion of commercial products for a purpose other than selling products and services. The story of how that came about is an important part of the history of advertising in America.
Fig. 6.1 Posting Wartime PSAs in Times Square in 1917 [Source]
1. The Beginnings of Public Service Advertising
Shortly after Congress declared war in 1917, President Woodrow Wilson established the Committee on Public Information which played a major role in convincing the public to support the war effort. George Creel, a Kansas City journalist whom Wilson appointed to chair the Committee, described its mission as coordinating "[n]ot propaganda as the Germans defined it, but propaganda in the true sense of the word, meaning the ‘propagation of faith.’"1
With the help of people drawn from the advertising industry, the Committee created several major campaigns. Among them were:
The War Savings Stamps drive that urged the public to "save the thoughtless dollars" that were being wasted through self-indulgence while soldiers sacrificed themselves on the battlefields of war.
Fig. 6.2 This Public Service Advertisement Urged Americans
to Buy War Savings Stamps [Source]
The Red Cross campaign that asked citizens to join the organization, which was personified in the ads in a Madonna-like image entitled the "Greatest Mother in the World."
Fig. 6.3 A Well-Known Public Service Ad from World War I [Source]
The Spies and Lies campaign that urged the public to suppress groundless rumors and gossip.
Fig. 6.4 This Campaign Called on the American Public
in Yet Another Way [Source]
The Selective Service campaign that supported draft registration.
Fig. 6.5 This Famous Poster Recruited Men for the Army [Source]
The Kill Every Rat campaign that urged the extinction of grain-eating vermin.
Fig. 6.6 This Campaign Sought to Enlist the Public's Help
in Reducing Food Shortages [Source]
A series of campaigns urging parents and sweethearts to write only cheerful letters to soldiers.2
Fig. 6.7 Those at Home Were Instructed on What to Say to Troops [Source]
According to Robert Jackall and Janice Hirota, who have researched the history of public service advertising, available evidence suggests that these powerful images and calls to action issued by Committee on Public Information did help mold public opinion. The PSAs were by no means the only factors in uniting the public on the war effort, but they did help define appropriate roles and responses for the American public in wartime. The Committee on Public Information ceased to exist at the end of World War I.
2. The Origins of the Ad Council
World War II saw the emergence of PSAs once again in mobilizing support for the war. From those efforts was born the Advertising Council (or Ad Council) which is today the most visible purveyor of public service advertising. Its familiar logo appears in campaigns against drug use, drunk driving, racial discrimination, and child abuse—to name only a few.
Fig. 6.8 The Familiar Logo of the Ad Council
Appears in Many Contemporary PSAs [Source]
The origins of the Ad Council actually predate the war effort. In 1941, the American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) and the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) met in Hot Springs, Virginia, to discuss the anti-business and anti-advertising atmosphere that had developed in America during the Roosevelt years. James Webb Young of the J. Walter Thompson agency in New York, in addressing the group, called on them to make efforts to improve the public face of advertising by improving advertising techniques and undertaking pro bono social programs. He pointed out that John D. Rockefeller, first known as a robber baron, gained greater public standing after becoming a generous philanthropist. Webb suggested that advertising needed to take a lesson from Rockefeller.
The Hot Springs meeting ended with several resolutions affirming Young's analysis. Specifically, the assembled executives agreed that "advertising is an important part of American business—that attacks on advertising are attacks on business. [Therefore] the best defense consists of (a) better taste in copy and commercial, (b) dissemination of facts on the function and effects of advertising, [and] (c) re-teaching a belief in a dynamic economy." They also agreed to use "the skills and facilities of advertising for information and persuasion in other than commercial ventures, and specifically in the public interest."3
As this plan was being put into action, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II. The War Advertising Council was created and worked diligently with government agencies to produce campaigns designed to educate the public once again about their role in the war effort. This wartime advertising used four main techniques:
An All-Out campaign in which an advertiser gave the lion's share of an advertisement to promoting a war theme, such as encouraging women to join the Women's Army Corps (WAC), growing a victory garden at home, or helping former soldiers adjust after the war.
Fig. 6.9 This 1945 Ad about the Reintegration of Soldiers into Society
Was Sponsored by Ipana Tooth Paste [Source]
A Double-Barrelled campaign that used war themes to sell products, such as taking photographs to send to soldiers in the field.
Fig. 6.10 This Ad Sells Both Film and Support for the Troops [Source]
A Sneak Punch campaign, in which an advertiser slipped a war message into a regular product advertisement, such as showing workers in wartime factories drinking Coca-Cola.
Fig. 6.11 This 1944 Ad Shows Wartime Factory Workers
Enjoying a Coke [Source]
A Plug with a Slug approach in which an advertiser placed a war-related message
in the corner of a regular advertisement.4
Fig. 6.12 This 1944 Ad Promotes Tobacco and Support for the War [Source]
Visit the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park to read the stories of many women who worked in factories during World War II and view a webcast about the story of Rosie.In one of the most far-reaching of the war campaigns, Rosie the Riveter asserted, "We Can Do It!" She became America's wartime icon for women willing to roll up their sleeves and work in factories as a part of the war effort. With the conscription of able-bodied men into military roles, six million women moved into the workforce to replace the men and help manufacture war materiel. Labor historians are quick to point out, however, that when the men returned from war, women were expected to give their jobs back to men.
Fig. 6.13 Rosie the Riveter (1942)
Was Sponsored by the Westinghouse Corporation [Source]
Another wartime campaign, Loose Lips Sink Ships, urged Americans to keep quiet about information that might be useful if heard by the enemy. At a time when Japanese and German submarines patrolled the US coastline, there was great need for secrecy concerning Navy maneuvers, troop movements, and other military matters. The campaign sought to educate both servicemen and civilians about the need for security.
Fig. 6.14 Security through Silence during World War II [Source]
Fig. 6.15 Uncle Sam Urges Silence during World War II [Source]
Many organizations proposed campaigns during the war years. They included the Army, the Girl Scouts, the Marine Corps, the Salvation Army, the Infantile Paralysis Association, the Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe (CARE), and the National Conference of Christians and Jews. Following the surrenders of Germany and Japan, the "war" in War Advertising Council was dropped, and the organization became the Advertising Council. Today the organization is commonly known as the Ad Council.
3. Some Historic Campaigns of the Ad Council
Only You Can Prevent Wildfires
Perhaps no public service ad is more memorable than Smokey Bear reminding children and adults alike that, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires." This campaign, which began in 1944, continues into the present. Since its introduction, the U.S.D.A. Forest Service statistics show a marked decrease in forest fires. The campaign has been supported by print ads, billboards, radio and TV commercials, and a website. Smokey regularly appears in such public events as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Rose Bowl Parade on New Year's Day.
Smokey's Vault contains a record of the advertising for the campaign. It is maintained by the Forest Service, the National Association of State Foresters, and the Ad Council.The campaign encouraging forest fire prevention did not originally feature Smokey nor did it stem from environmental issues. Rather, it emerged first during World War II when there was fear that massive fires would be ignited along the West Coast by Japanese shelling or wind-driven balloons. After determining that nine out of ten forest fires were started by individuals, the Forest Service decided to target careless smokers and campers.
Walt Disney loaned the image of Bambi for early PSAs in the campaign (see Figure 17). The animal-spokesperson proved popular, and Foote, Cone & Belding (Los Angeles) created Smokey Bear. Smokey, who was given a ranger's hat for authority and a shovel for his "hands," quickly became a popular icon.
Fig. 6.16 This Wartime PSA Targeted Careless Smokers and Campers [Source]
Fig. 6.17 Walt Disney's Bambi Predated Smokey
in the Campaign to Prevent Forest Fires (1944) [Source]
Fig. 6.18 The First Smokey Bear Ad from 1944 [Source]
The forest fire prevention campaign has been so successful that it has transformed American ideas about forest fires to the point where the public is even concerned about controlled burning and naturally occurring fires. Although some fires are environmentally beneficial, few people think so. Today the campaign speaks of "wildfires" in order to include fires in non-forested areas and emphasize the difference between controlled and non-controlled burning.
People Start Pollution, People Can Stop It
A national nonprofit public education organization named Keep America Beautiful, Inc. (KAB) was formed in 1953 with the mission of "engaging individuals to take greater responsibility for improving their local community environments."5 KAB's first PSA focused on litter prevention. It partnered with the Ad Council in 1960 to produce a campaign focused on the harmful environmental effects of litter and other forms of pollution.
The joint KAB-Ad Council campaign, produced by Marsteller, Inc., originally featured a character named Suzy Spotless, a blond, blue-eyed girl dressed in clean, light-colored clothes who busied herself by putting litter in trash cans and scolding litterbugs. The central tenet of the campaign was to urge individuals to not litter or pollute and thus help protect the environment. In addition to ads, the campaign was supported by a free brochure (more than 100,000 were distributed in the first four months) and a toll-free hotline. Ad Council research shows that the "National Litter Index" (as formulated and calculated by KAB) declined after the campaign began.
Fig. 6.19 Suzy Spotless for Keep America Beautiful [Source]
Ten years into the KAB-Ad Council partnership, in 1971, a Native American (who became known as "The Crying Indian") appeared in an anti-litter commercial. As he looks over a polluted landscape and sheds a tear, a voice-over says: "People start pollution. People can stop it." This powerful commercial won many awards, including being named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century by Advertising Age. Its success inspired other environmental messages from the Ad Council and other groups.
Fig. 6.20 The “Crying Indian” Commercial First Appeared in 1971 [Source]
In 1998, the campaign featured a new spot based on the immensely popular original commercial. North Castle Partners in Stamford, Connecticut, which did the reprise of the "Crying Indian" theme, felt that the original commercial was far too sentimental for a contemporary audience. They created a commercial that presented the Native American not as a living person but as an icon. The setting for the commercial is a bus stop where an advertising poster features the image of Iron Eyes Cody shedding a tear. Ignoring the poster, boarding passengers discard litter thoughtlessly. The commercial ends with a voice-over saying, "Back by popular neglect."
Fig. 6.21 Back by Popular Neglect in 1998 [Source]
In addition to its popularity, this campaign (not the "Crying Indian" commercials per se) proved to be quite controversial. Shortly after its debut, various journalists wrote articles pointing out aspects that might not be immediately apparent to viewers. They noted that the tagline "People start pollution; people can stop it" focuses the responsibility for environmental pollution solely on individuals. Keenen Peck wrote in The Progressive that "[t]he damage done by litter is ... inconsequential compared to the damage done by industrial pollution, but the Ad Council's slogan suggest[s] that individuals ... are responsible."6
The campaign's focus on individuals as a source of pollution continued to be an object of criticism. John McDonough, writing in Advertising Age, pointed out that the Ad Council's advisory panel for the campaign included some of the country's biggest alleged polluters—Allied Chemicals, Bethlehem Steel, American Can, and US Steel—and that the original campaign was funded by American Can. McDonough wrote, "The company may have loved the pre-Columbian landscape as much as the next guy—and delighted in having Iron Eyes letting people know it. But it consistently opposed state legislation designed to curb litter through container refund-deposit."7
Another issue raised by critics was that this campaign ran in donated time and that TV stations tended to be reluctant to give time to other environmental groups. Five environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society, withdrew from KAB. They felt that the KAB-Ad Council campaign was actually a public relations campaign on the part of the container industry to cover its opposition to refund and deposit programs.8
This campaign and the controversy surrounding it suggest that public service campaigns, like the commercial advertising campaigns on which they are modeled, serve the vested interests of their sponsors. Just as the original work of the Ad Council for the war effort was also an effort to improve the public image of advertising, other campaigns often have motivating factors in addition to altruism.
The United Negro College Fund has raised millions of dollars that have been used to pay tuition and provide scholarships at historically black colleges and universities.A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste
The United Negro College Fund (UNCF) was founded in 1944 as a philanthropic organization that raises funds to support scholarships for students and to help pay operating costs at the thirty-nine historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in America. Over the years the Fund has helped many students from poor families attend college. Graduates of HBCU institutions include many prominent Americans: Nobel Laureate Martin Luther King, President Ruth Simmons of Brown University, director Spike Lee, singer Lionel Richie, and several members of Congress.
In 1968, the Ad Council decided to help the UNCF in its fundraising efforts. In a 1973 media kit, the Ad Council gave three reasons for its decision. First, it noted that black colleges were facing increasing demands on their capacities and facilities as opportunities for blacks expanded in American society. Second, it noted that HBCUs, such as Fisk, Morehouse, and Tuskegee had been victims of neglect, hostility, and indifference, and, as a result, were largely invisible to the American public. Third, HBCU institutions have produced "the professional people, the community leaders, and the solid middle-class which gives stability to our institutions and communities." Since its foundation, the UNCF has continued to assist the private HBCUs, which are dependent on volunteer support for their existences.9
In 1972, the Young & Rubicam advertising agency created the UNCF tagline, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste." Advertising Age reported that, by 1991, this slogan was recognized by 77 percent of the American population.10 (That 77 percent apparently did not include former Vice President Dan Quayle who, in 1989, famously misstated it as "What a waste it is to lose one's mind." ) Over the years, the continuing campaign has been credited with increasing public awareness and support for HBCUs.
|Here's a test—name everything you can think of that was invented by a black man. Did you get stuck not too far after jazz and the peanut? Probably because, when we were children, the history books short-changed black accomplishments. So here's a partial rundown of things discovered, first made, by black Americans. Ice cream, blood plasma, the automatic railroad coupler, the original survey of the city of Washington, D.C., potato chips, open heart surgery, the automatic oiler for heavy machinery, the carbon filament light bulb, the lasting machine the modern shoe industry is built on, the breathing unit of the World War I gas mask and the first American clock. That is only a partial list—from a largely uneducated people. Think of what they could have done with a chance at an education.
—From Advertising Council Files, 1973
Ad Council's interest in the United Negro College Fund began in the 1960s when the country was undergoing a tremendous social upheaval concerning civil rights. A cynical assessment would suggest that it took the civil rights movement to get the Ad Council to focus attention on minority issues and that the attention was late in coming. A more positive assessment would note that the Ad Council, in the midst of the national awakening to the status of African Americans, turned its own attention to the role that it might play in the betterment of society. From those concerns was born one of America's most effective public service slogans.
Fig. 6.22 A Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Waste [Source]
I Am an American
Fig. 6.23 The UNCF Campaign Continues in the Present [Source]
The events of September 11, 2001, gave rise to a campaign that celebrates diversity within American society. The campaign was born in a moment when commercial advertising seemed inappropriate and many groups and organizations were seeking a way to unite the country in a common determination to overcome forces attempting to destroy it.
A group from the Austin, Texas, advertising agency GSD&M found themselves stranded in Annapolis, Maryland, when planes were grounded for several days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In a rental car, they drove across a wide swath of America on their return home. During that trip, they developed the idea of celebrating the diversity they saw as a response to the crisis. Back at home, the idea for such a PSA gained support. Several other volunteers joined them in appealing to the Ad Council. The Ad Council liked the idea and agreed to sponsor the campaign. Within ten days of September 11th, the commercials were on the air, filling time donated by media outlets across America.
Fig. 6.24 I Am an American (2001) [Source]
4. The Value of the Ad Council: Some Testimonials
"The voluntary contribution made by men and women under the Council's leadership has been of notable assistance to the government's wartime information programs. I am informed that nearly a billion dollars worth of advertising has been contributed to war programs since Pearl Harbor. This large-scale aid from American business has helped our people keep informed about the need to buy war bonds, prevent inflation, donate blood and otherwise play their part in the war."
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Thirty-second President, 1933-1945
"I am greatly pleased to hear that The Advertising Council plans to carry on its public service activities. I would like to express the sincere hope that American business will see its way clear to supporting your public service projects.... Our problems, unfortunately, did not end with the war, and there will be many vital ones which cannot be solved without the understanding and cooperation of the people."
Harry S. Truman
Thirty-third President, 1945-1953
"The Ad Council's messages speak to dreams, respond to fears and bring needed attention to important issues. During my administration, the Ad Council helped me and the parents of our nation talk to their children about gun violence and the dangers of using drugs. I am profoundly grateful for their work."
William J. Clinton
Forty-second President, 1993-2001
"The Ad Council has made and continues to make significant contributions to the lives of all Americans. Since Sept. 11, the Ad Council's messages of help and healing in its ‘Campaign for Freedom’
have helped our nation respond to and recover from the terrorists' attacks. The Ad Council has helped demonstrate the power of public service and the benefits of volunteerism. I commend this collaboration of advertising, media and business, and the Ad Council's valuable service to our nation."
George W. Bush
Forty-third President, 2001-Present
"The Ad Council has been a positive and powerful force in this nation for 60 years. By bringing together the incredible creative energy of advertising, the enormous breadth and scope of media, and the vital support and resources of the corporate world, we have led by example. Of course, by ‘we,’ I mean the hundreds upon hundreds of advertisers, media and agency volunteers who have lent their support, whether financial or through the commitment of time and talent, to the Ad Council. They have demonstrated that there are causes bigger than one's self or one's company. They have proven that these causes can be brought to the public's attention with eloquence and excellence. And because of that, they have made a difference."
President, Ad Council, 1999-Present
"The Ad Council is the industry's own charity. It's made up of individuals coming together who possess unique skills and talents and who, as an entirety, can make a difference."
Chairman, Ad Council, 2002-2003
5. Who Pays for Public Service Advertising?
In most instances, public service advertising is pro bono work done by advertising agencies. When an idea is proposed to the Ad Council and receives approval, a volunteer agency agrees to produce the advertising free of charge. Agencies see this kind of work as their way of "giving back" to society, and they often point out that their powers of persuasion can be used for social good as well as to sell products. Advertising is, from this perspective, a neutral technique, and not tied to any particular set of values. Despite these claims, it is important to note that the Ad Council is closely linked to the advertising industry and that, therefore, it does not as a matter of principle do campaigns that impact business, consumerism, or advertising adversely. This said, the campaigns that the Ad Council has sponsored over the years are associated with many worthy causes.
Read the full set of requirements established by the Ad Council for accepting a campaign.The following are among the requirements for a campaign to receive Ad Council sponsorship:
The sponsor organization must be a private non-profit organization, private foundation, government agency, or coalition of such groups.
The issue should be of sufficient seriousness and public importance to warrant donations of space and time by the media.
The issue must address the Ad Council's focus on Health & Safety, Education, or Community.
The issue must offer a solution through an individual action.
The effort must be national in scope, so that the message has relevance to media audiences in communities throughout the nation.
The issue must be non-commercial, non-denominational, non-partisan, and not be designated
to influence legislation.
Visit the PSA Research Center website, which contains a discussion of the pros and cons of paid versus donated media.Some organizations, like the American Red Cross and agencies of the US Government, have paid as opposed to relying on donated media space. Donated media spots often air in undesirable time slots and do not reach their intended audiences. Paying for media time gives more control over time slots, but it can also result in increased reluctance on the part of media outlets to donate time to charitable organizations. During the Clinton Administration's "War on Drugs," the Office of National Drug Control Policy purchased media time with the proviso that broadcasters donate an equal amount of time.11
6. An Inside Look at the Development of a Public Service Campaign
How does an issue become a public service campaign? In the following interview, Priscilla Natkins
who is Executive Vice President, Director of Client Services for the Ad Council describes the process.
PN: We have roughly fifty different PSA communications programs that we work on, half of them are based out of New York, and half of them are based out of Washington. It's just a matter of resources and managing the process. I work with both sponsoring organizations and the volunteer advertising agencies to develop the PSA programs.
I also wear another hat. I work with our Senior Vice President for Nonprofit and Government Affairs who's based in Washington DC on the new campaign process—meaning how an issue ultimately becomes an Ad Council campaign. You asked about the process of how something ends up on air. It really starts there.
WMO: Then I'd like to hear about that.
WMO: First of all, you must get a lot more requests for campaigns than you are able to follow through on.
PN: That's correct. So we do have a process in place that helps us decide which programs we actually take on through the Ad Council and our pro bono resources. Basically, as a backdrop, we have essentially three issue areas that we develop campaigns against. It's education, health and safety, which are combined, and community, which includes a range of initiatives, including things like mentoring as well as environmental issues like global warming and energy efficiency. Health and safety and education are more self-evident.
The Ad Council's Advisory Committee on Public Issues is comprised of leaders representing the fields of business, non-profit, research, academia, philanthropy and public policy. It is chaired by Dr. David Satcher, the former Surgeon General, as well as David Bell, Chairman Emeritus of the Interpublic Group. We have everybody from Dr. Herbert Pardes who's the CEO of New York Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, Frances Beinecke, the President of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alicin Reidy, Vice President for Public Responsibility at MTV Networks and Delia Pompa, Vice President for Education at National Council of La Raza. So, we have a very diverse body of experts who meet and really look at the social landscape, at the Ad Council's docket, and help us make sure that we are staying true to our mission—to address the nation's most pressing issues with PSA programs. The Committee examines our current docket and helps us identify emerging social trends. This biannual examination of our docket is important because we need to be thinking ahead—sometimes it can take up to two years to get a PSA campaign up and running. And finding funding for a substantial public education campaign can take time. The Committee helps us keep ourselves ahead of the curve, identifying emerging issues, like obesity prevention, for example, before it became so much in the forefront.
WMO: Are there some topics that are not yet in public service announcements that you are at liberty to mention, that are in the early developmental stages? Or is it something you can talk about only later in the process?
PN: It's hard because we are always working to match organizations with issues they might want to sponsor. For example, financial literacy was identified by the Committee at least three or four years ago as something that needed to be dealt with on a pretty consistent basis in order to address the issues of individuals going into bankruptcy and homeownership in this country. We have multiple initiatives right now around financial literacy.
WMO: But what drove that? Where did that question come from?
PN: It came from the experts on our Committee saying, "Hey, this is what's going on in the economy today."
WMO: And why were they interested in financial literacy?
PN: The two members that brought the issue to our attention are very close to this issue—they worked for American Express Foundation and the Financial Services Forum. And they felt it was an important issue because it affects the health and well-being of our nation, of our nation's families and children and their ability to prosper.
WMO: But aren't there are other things that also affect that health that don't make it into PSAs?
PN: It's not just that they develop and identify one issue. I'm using that as an example of how an issue becomes a campaign. It came from our Advisory Committee, not from some outside source. Campaigns come to the Ad Council one of two ways. One, our Advisory Committee says this is an emerging issue, and we ought to be providing public education in this space. Then we will work to find the leaders in those organizations who are out there in the community who can take on a public education program. That's because you have to be a national organization, as well as having roots within communities, so that people can engage in and take action. So our Committee identifies an issue and we pro-actively pursue the right organization. Or, we get requests on an ongoing basis from organizations that want to become Ad Council campaigns. So they come to us in two ways.
WMO: How many requests do you get per year compared to those you might actually follow through?
PN: How many times does the phone ring and we get requests that don't even meet our basic criteria plus the ones that essentially do? I would say anywhere from 150 to 200 requests a year. We have a person in our New York office who fields those initial requests because we have basic criteria you have to meet in order to work with the Ad Council. If the issue meets those criteria, then we discuss it internally. So, issues come to us either by self-identification or inquiries from outside organizations. The process is that we review it on a senior staff level. Is there really a PSA-able proposition here? Sometimes it's more about policy, and there is no clear action that the consumer can take beyond writing to their Congressmember, or getting engaged in the legislation in their community, or making sure that something happens from a policy standpoint. There has to be some consumer action: buckle your seat belt, or get involved in your child's school, or help reduce global warming—a campaign we just launched. Some people said, "How can you be doing public education about global warming? Isn't it all about politics?" Well, it's not, because there are clear things that individuals can do on a regular basis to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. So there has to be some consumer action.
WMO: But it's individual focused-action.
WMO: Why that only?
PN: Because otherwise, it's an advocacy campaign. Then it doesn't get public service time. The media companies don't donate media to advocacy campaigns. It's outside of our mission. That's not what we do.
WMO: You refer to the individuals to whom PSAs are directed as consumers, not citizens. Is there a reason for that?
PN: It's just marketing terminology. They are citizens. It's the American public.
WMO: Is that the usual lingo?
WMO: And does it signify anything different than if you used different terminology?
PN: I think of them as having a particular psychographic profile and mindset vis-à-vis the issue we have to change and motivate through advertising.
WMO: And that's going to differ issue by issue?
PN: It's going to differ issue by issue. Also, it's going to differ by whom you are speaking to within the target audience. Sometimes, one size doesn't fit all.
WMO: So you really have to treat this like a marketing question.
PN: That's exactly how it is treated. It's tackled like you would tackle selling Tide vis-à-vis Wisk. It's the same marketing.
WMO: So you think of demographics and psychographics as highly relevant in sending PSA messages?
PN: Absolutely. Our campaign development process is very similar to how our agencies take on consumer advertising.
So once an inquiry comes to the Ad Council, and we've decided it's something we should be pursuing or needs to be taken to the next step, our Executive Committee of our Board of Directors will ultimately decide whether to take on the campaign and devote our limited resources to it. Our staff, myself included, work with the sponsoring organization to develop a proposal. What is the PSA-able proposition? Who is it that you are targeting? Clearly defining your objectives. Clearly defining what the metrics are. How are you going to know you are actually making a difference? What do you have on the back end—meaning, is there a website, an 800 number, are there community-based organizations that are going to help people? It depends upon the issue you are putting out there. If it's "Buckle up!" we don't need ten grassroots organizations to help teach people how to put their seat belts on. But if it's about disease prevention, and I want people to take control of their own health, what's there in the community? For the most at-risk, low-income consumer, can I take action if I'm motivated by your message? It's very important that you think about the issue all the way down to the grassroots community organizations that are there and services that help effect change. So our Executive Committee either accepts or rejects these proposals. If they are accepted, they become Ad Council campaigns. We work with the 4A's—to assign a volunteer ad agency. We also ask a minimum of a three-year commitment from the sponsoring organization as well as the pro bono ad agency because fundamental social change can't happen overnight. We need to know that you are in it for the long haul. So once we have sponsoring organizations on board as well as the pro bono ad agency, we look at all the existing research that's out there on the particular issue. Then as part of the budget we put together, we will include primary research of our own. It most commonly takes the form of focus groups or quantitative concept research. We try to understand where the target audience is today vis-à-vis the issue.
WMO: So you're really just doing market research?
PN: Exactly. Once we have our market research conducted, the ad agency, the Ad Council, and the sponsoring organization, we all debrief, we discuss, we review. And then the agency develops our campaign strategy, which is basically the blueprint for creative development. Who is it exactly that we are talking to? What are the insights that we are going to address? What is that single-minded message that we are going to put forth in the PSA to really draw people in and motivate them to think about things differently, to do something differently, to visit a website, and further engage in the issue? The Ad Council also has a Campaign Review Committee, which is comprised of primarily chief creative officers, executive creative directors in the ad community, who serve to either approve the work or ask the pro bono agency to go back and try again if it's not good enough, it's not powerful enough, or it's not focused enough.
We have a wonderful network of volunteers who really view the Ad Council and our whole process as their way to give back the expertise they have in communication. We use them a lot. So once our Campaign Review Committee approves a campaign strategy, the ad agency goes into the creative development mode, and then they present the concepts to the Ad Council and to our sponsoring organization, and then we go to our Campaign Review Committee which has to approve the actual creative concepts. Then we go back and do some more research to make sure that what it is that we want to come through is coming through loud and clear. We look for any potential red flags with communications. It's really a helpful process, not necessarily to have citizens decide what's good creative and what's not, but to help us really make sure that we are communicating our message, that we haven't put it in the wrong context for them or offended them in some way that we didn't see ourselves.
Then we go into the whole campaign development production process, where the agency hires a director and a production company. They actually produce the PSA campaign. I'm simplifying this a lot.
WMO: Of course, but I see the outline of it. You're emphasizing how similar this is to a marketing campaign for a commercial product. How is it different?
PN: I think first of all, there is more at stake. It's about saving lives, transforming lives, providing opportunities. I think just at the core of it, there is a lot more at stake and I think the issues are far more complex than when you are selling a product or service.
For instance, I've brought this as an example. It's a high school drop out prevention campaign. There are so many different factors that go into a child's decision whether or not to complete their high school education. You have to dig through it all and find one single-minded message that can affect some aspect of the issue. And then surround it with the other components that really need to be addressed in order to truly affect change. For high school drop out prevention, our strategy right now as it relates to kids is all about peer-to-peer interaction. No one's really talking about, do you know if your friend is thinking of dropping out? If they are, do you intervene? Do you give them support? Do you let them know that you're there? Do you let them know it's not okay? Similar to "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk." As it relates to drugs, smoking, where is that peer-to-peer influence in a positive way related to this issue? So that's kind of the single-minded focus of the PSA campaign. We also do tracking studies, where we get benchmarks on where people are vis-à-vis the particular attitude and behavior and then we go back in, roughly a year later, to see if we're moving the needle. In this case, I think it was a ten-month post when we started that peer-to-peer "Friends don't let friends drop out"— those aren't the exact words, I'm simplifying it. We saw a fifty percent increase in the number of kids saying, "I intervened on behalf of a friend who was considering dropping out." We benchmarked other issues—smoking, drinking, drugs, school violence—and those lay flat. This was the only one that saw movement. The media was highly supportive of this campaign, and we saw ad awareness double. We know the message broke through and was noticed. The media supported it and presented it in a way that was engaging, and we saw an attitudinal behavioral shift.
WMO: How did you come up with the particular focus of that campaign?
PN: We did research, a ton of research. We studied this issue since day one. What is it that you can say to kids? You can't say, "Be cool. Stay in school." It's just going to fall on deaf ears. It doesn't really mean anything. So what we did with this particular campaign is we assembled an expert panel that we go to on a regular basis. We're not experts on high school drop out prevention. The US Army is the actual sponsor for this campaign, and they are not true experts on all aspects of the issue. So when this came in the door—and this is common practice for us—we assembled leaders in this field to use as resources to be sure (a) that we are doing the right thing, that we considered everything, that we are really being true to the issue, and (b) that there is support in the community for this kind of message. You don't want to put a message out there and have those who are experts in the field start pumping holes in it or school administrators saying, "What are you doing? What are you telling kids? We can't have this kind of message. We can't deal with it in the school." We make sure we really go outside the target audience and consider all the other groups that are involved and really effecting change.
With this particular campaign, we had an expert panel and we looked at our research, looked at what kids were saying and doing, and we put this idea out there. The experts thought it was fabulous. We talked to the kids themselves. We went into at-risk schools in tough neighborhoods and talked to them one-on-one—not in your traditional focus group facility where you are behind the glass. We had researchers actually sit in school with the kids, talking one-on-one, "give it to me real, not in a forced way," something that made them think that they were part of the process.
WMO: How expensive was a campaign like that in terms of development? We see figures on donated media time, but in terms of all the work and support that goes into a campaign like this, what does it cost?
PN: I would say on average, if you consider the three-year plan, which I said is a minimum, it's maybe up to $2.1 million over three years. Basically, what that covers is all of the upfront strategic research, all of the pre- and post-tracking, all of the packaging, distribution, monitoring, and media outreach. Talk about a competitive marketplace, our sales force goes into the field to make sure these PSAs are getting placed, they do personal visits to PSA directors, and they'll see a pile of tapes on the floor. How to make yours stand out is something that we need to support on an ongoing basis, and that takes a lot of research. We do a lot of internal research with the public service director community, as well as outreach, developing those relationships, and covering the market.
WMO: Can I see the spot?
PN: I want to circle back to not just the PSA, but the things that we surround it with. We have an in-school game that we developed for guidance counselors and advisors to use in sessions with kids. As I said, it's a highly complex issue.
WMO: So it's a whole marketing plan in other words.
PN: Yes. All of our campaigns are marketing plans. They are not just commercials. So if you choose your single-minded message for the PSA, you have to consider whatever else has to happen. For high school drop out prevention, it's all about healthy choices, to some degree. We know the top reasons kids drop out of school—pregnancy, gang violence, low self-esteem, no positive adult role models—and we tackle them in different ways. We have a game called the Real Deal that we developed in partnership with experts—guidance counselors, community-based organizations, the kids themselves, to make sure that it had utility and interest for multiple sectors. We send it out every year, focusing on the most at-risk schools, the most at-risk communities, and give them other things as well. We also have a pretty extensive website for both parents and kids. For parents, it's very much about the resources you need for tutoring, for social services, for mentoring, anything that you can think of that relates to high school completion. We have it there in that website, and that was developed in partnership with our experts.
The campaign has evolved a bit. This year, we developed a new identity for potential drop-outs, we think of them as potential graduates. If you look at all the quantitative research on education and kids' attitudes, they all expect to graduate. They all want to graduate and go to college. They understand the value, but life happens and obstacles get in the way and they have trouble completing it. So we have a new program called "A Boost Up," which is all about giving people a boost peer-to-peer: help your friend, and for parents, get involved and support them. There's a website where we actually gave ten kids cameras in the beginning of the school year, knowing that potentially four out of ten won't finish. Let's watch them throughout the school year. So these kids are submitting films on a monthly basis of their own lives, their own obstacles, and you can view it all on the website.
Fig. 6.25 The “Boost Up” Campaign Encourages Peer-to-Peer Help [Source]
PN: We're busy here at the Ad Council.
WMO: That's a really cool idea.
PN: It's a cool program, and I'll tell you that the response so far has been great. We're gearing up right now to shoot a class of about seven, to film them, so when it is back-to-school next year, we'll have a class of about seven. We're hoping to film some of the graduations for the kids who are making it.
WMO: That's really nice.
PN: Is this giving you a good sense of what goes on?
WMO: Yes, yes, it is. I'm curious about what the campaign looks like now.
PN: There's a bunch of different things. I'll just give you a sample. JWT did this.
Fig. 6.26 Another Example from the “Boost Up” Campaign [Source]
Then I'll show you how we got that peer-to-peer message in here.
Fig. 6.27 Peers Encourage Their Friends to Attend School [Source]
All these materials are in English and Spanish. There is a trend in advertising media to self-generate content, and this stays on that curve of what is relevant in the media world too, which is an important component.
WMO: Now the Spanish ones, are they dubbed?
PN: Nope. We don't dub.
WMO: I didn't think you did. But I thought I'd ask.
PN: In this one, I think it's her voice doing the voiceover.
Fig. 6.28 A Spanish-Language Version of the “Boost Up” Campaign[Source]
PN: She's talking about the importance of her mother.
We did public relations too, and a couple of these kids went on local radio shows, the media has been interested. A radio station did a piece on it. Most of our campaigns have some kind of public relations component to it to add that context.
WMO: Have you had criticism of this campaign? Is this one clean?
PN: Usually our motto is, "No good deed goes unpunished." You think you're doing this benign thing that you've made sure is not overly provocative.
WMO: The American media loves to pull things apart.
PN: Or even your average Joe citizen. We get emails, "How dare you, blah blah blah." Part of the idea of "Boost" is to encourage other kids to submit their own stories. So if you go to www.boostup.org, you'll get a sense of how we're creating an online community for kids. We also have banner ads out there. We have outdoor posters, posters in schools, really to encourage kids to share their stories, to not only watch this, but to tell us what they're facing.
Fig. 6.29 A “Boost Up” Print Ad [Source]
WMO: Tell me again the statistics on the effect of this. Measured against the benchmark of other things.
PN: I could send you an email if you are really interested in that. I'll clear it with the Army. We do quantitative research samples on an ongoing basis for this campaign, and this is custom research for this one, because we really had to recruit these low-income, at-risk kids. And we saw a fifty percent increase in the number of kids who say they intervened on behalf of a friend, that they talked to a friend who was thinking of dropping out.
WMO: That seems like an interesting and important statistic because sometimes when I see the statistics about the impact of public service ads, they seem to have been generated within an organization for public relations as much as anything. For example, about environmental pollution, the statistics reported were those of some institute that had clearly been founded by funders and didn't have any kind of independence. When you look from the outside, the question is how valid are these measures? In this case, it sounds like you've really tried hard to measure the effects.
PN: There is so much going on outside of our campaign, how do you really trace some kind of impact back to a marketing initiative? So our metrics are really very specific to the campaign message. For example, for domestic violence, the whole objective of our strategy there was to figure out how to draw men into the issue, the way men now care about breast cancer. How do they take ownership of this issue? We did a lot of quantitative research with Peter Hartman Associates. If you tell a man to intervene, if you think or suspect domestic violence is going on, they give you a thousand reasons why not to do that. I've sat in focus groups and I've been shocked, you know, "she had it coming," "it's not my business," "I'm not going to go there." But, if you give men a very clear role, such as teaching the boys in their lives that violence against women is wrong—teach your sons, teach your nephews, teach the boys you coach respect for women and that violence against women is wrong—they said they'd do it. All of our tracking is focused on that one message. Are they hearing it? Are they having the conversations that say it's important? So that's an example of how our research is very much focused on the framing and context of the marketing initiative.
WMO: In commercial marketing, people are busy explaining away the impact of advertising when they don't like the results by arguing that you really can't tie campaigns to sales, that what matters is the continuing presence and so on.
PN: We basically have the same struggles.
WMO: But you are making claims about the effectiveness of a campaign, whereas they are shying away more often than not. What's the difference here?
PN: I don't know.
WMO: But you understand what I'm talking about?
PN: I do. For us, it's very important that we are very disciplined about what we are trying to accomplish. The media needs to know how they are making a difference. As I said, it's very competitive out there. We really believe that if you can show the media how important it is to support these campaigns—because they are, in fact, making a difference—it helps us get this ongoing support from the community. It helps the ad agencies stay engaged. I work with over thirty advertising agencies, and I would say nine and a half times out of ten, they whisper to you, "This is the best thing I've done in years. Thank you." They feel so good about being able to use the power of marketing to effect social change. They get very invested in these issues.
WMO: Is your own background in marketing?
PN: I used to be in the ad agency world.
WMO: So you just came here?
PN: And cleansed my soul. Strike that from the record!
No, I love advertising, I believe in it wholeheartedly. I had a lot of traditional packaged goods training that is so transferable to social issues.
WMO: It really is interesting to see how the techniques of marketing and advertising can be applied to different things—sometimes selling commercial products and sometimes selling ideas that have real social merit. That speaks that point that is often made about advertising being something of a neutral technique. The question is really what it is applied to, who's doing it, and whose interests are involved, and these sorts of things. It suggests that critics of advertising would be better off focusing on the content of messages rather than advertising itself.
PN: I think the similarities are: know your target, know your issue, know your market, do your research, be single-minded. I think the bigger difference vis-à-vis commercial advertising is the surrounding support you need to create for public service initiatives. If I'm selling a product, if I buy time and I can get it on the shelf, I don't need to worry about all these other things. For us, for these campaigns to be successful, you want all of the groups that can really effect change to get behind this particular initiative to be on board.
7. Public Service Advertising beyond the Ad Council
The Federal Citizen Information Center Archives contain government PSAs from the 1970s to the present.In addition to the work done by the Ad Council, there are other charitable organizations and government agencies that produce public service ads. Some of these include the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United Way, March of Dimes, and Mothers against Drunk Driving. Many have created award-winning campaigns.
Fig. 6.30 United Way Ads Promote Several Charities at Once [Source]
The Partnership for a Drug-Free America was founded in 1985 as "a nonprofit coalition of communication, health, medical and educational professionals working to reduce illicit drug use and help people live healthy, drug-free lives."12 During its two decades of existence, it has produced PSAs that seek to "unsell" drug use to the American public. Research suggests that its campaigns have indeed been effective in changing attitudes and influencing behavior.
Its 1987 commercial known as "This Is Your Brain on Drugs" is one of the most powerful commercials of the 20th century. Many people report being influenced by its dramatic imagery of the effects of drug use. A second version of this commercial that aired in 1998 was also highly effective.
Fig. 6.31 This Is Your Brain on Drugs [Source]
Fig. 6.32 This Is Your Brain on Heroin (1998) [Source]
Some corporations engage in cause marketing, which involves raising money for non-profit organizations. It differs from public service advertising in that a corporation's product, brand, or service is also promoted. Cause marketing is deemed to be an effective marketing strategy for a corporation because it promotes a social cause as well as a commercial goal.
Read the American Express press release concerning the corporation's support of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation.
An excellent example of cause related marketing is depicted in the 1980s project to restore the Statue of Liberty. American Express pledged to donate one cent toward the restoration project for each use of its card. This cause marketing effort resulted in a donation by American Express of $1.7 million to the restoration project and a 28% increase in card usage by American Express cardholders, creating a win-win situation.13
8. Media Outlets for Public Service Advertising
Most PSAs run in donated media time and space. Stations often donate off-prime and unsold time, resulting in the failure of many PSAs to reach their intended audiences. In a speech to broadcasters in 1997, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Reed Hunt noted:
The FCC has never thought it necessary to impose a specific requirement to provide PSAs on broadcasters. But PSAs have been part of the service that broadcasters point to show that they are, indeed, using the public's airwaves in the public's interest ... If broadcasters are charging for the ads, it's hard to accept the argument that the PSAs are part of what they provide to the public in return for the free use of the spectrum.14
Read the Kaiser Family Foundation Report and visit sites like fightmannequinism.org or girlsgotech.org to see innovative ways to communicate PSAs.As media changes, PSA placements must change, too. A Kaiser Family Foundation report issued in March 2006 reviewed more than a dozen instances of current or recent public service advertising campaigns using newer technologies like interactive and multimedia websites (with quizzes, polls, and games), text messages, streaming videos, blogs, e-mails, and ads that change as cursors move over them.15
9. How Effective Are PSAs?
Measuring the effectiveness of any advertising campaign is a complex matter. The Ad Council's own assessments of some of its campaigns give an idea of how PSA providers think about their effectiveness. The following data were provided by the Ad Council:
The campaign received more than $200 million in donated media support during the two years following its launch in March 2004.
The website, www.smallstep.gov has received more than 3 million unique visitors within the campaign's initial two years of existence.
By May 2006, more than 145,000 people had subscribed to the smallstep.gov online newsletter.
Developed in partnership with Scholastic, in-school materials were distributed to 115,000 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grade classrooms during January 2006.
Consumer tracking research fielded one year after the campaign's launch indicated that awareness of messages about "small steps" grew significantly from 79% at the benchmark to 86% at post-wave. There was also significant increase in the number of individuals that said the issue, "Americans are overweight and at risk for health problems", was very important (29% to 35%). And among Hispanic audiences, there was an increase in those that agreed that "small changes in your eating habits and physical activities can have a big impact on your weight and health" from 56% to 63%.
Wildfire Prevention: Smokey Bear
Smokey Bear and his famous warning, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," were introduced to America in 1944. Since then, he has helped to reduce the number of acres lost annually to forest fires from 22 million to 8.4 million.
Smokey Bear is still rated one of the most recognizable figures in America, ranking alongside Mickey Mouse and Santa Claus. 99% of Americans recognize Smokey.
Public Service Ads have evolved far beyond their wartime origins and late night airings to become a frequent presence in American mass media. PSAs support diverse public campaigns and have an influential presence in American society. From a technical point of view, these ads demonstrate the flexibility and adaptability of advertising methods, showing that they can be used to promote positive social behaviors as well as commerce.
1 George Creel, Rebel at Large: Recollections of Fifty Crowded Years (New York: GP Putnam's Sons, 1947), 158. Quoted in Robert Jackall and Janice M. Hirota, Image Makers: Advertising, Public Relations, and the Ethos of Advocacy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 13.
2 Jackall and Hirota, 23.
3 Harold B. Thompson, "Background and Beginnings of The Advertising Council" (New York: Advertising Council, 1 April 1952 [retyped February 1983]), 10. Quoted in Jackall and Hirota, 39.
4 Advertising Council, "Ways to Show Your Colors: Tested Advertising Techniques that Help Win the War and Aid Your Product" (New York: Advertising Council, [c. 1944]) Quoted in Jackall and Hirota, 41-42.
5 Keep America Beautiful, Inc., "Who We Are," Keep America Beautiful, Inc., http://www.kab.org/aboutus.asp?id=32&rid=38 (accessed June 5, 2006).
6 Keenen Peck, quoted in John McDonough, "Ad Council at 60," Advertising Age, April 29, 2002.
7 McDonough, C4.
8 McDonough, C4, and Peter Harnik, "The Junking of an Anti-Litter Lobby," Business and Society Review (Spring 1977): 49.
9 United Negro College Fund, Black Colleges Face A Crisis: Ad Council Campaign Copy Guide and Fact Sheet Number 102.2 (New York: Advertising Council, 1973).
10 F. Bradley Lynch, "PSAs Credit to Agencies," Advertising Age (April 15 1991): 28.
11 D. Forbes, "Prime-time Propaganda: How the White House secretly hooked network TV on its anti-drug message: A Salon special report," Salon.com (January 13, 2000 ), http://dir.salon.com/news/feature/2000/01/13/drugs/index.html?pn=2 (accessed June 5, 2006).
12 Partnership for a Drug-Free America, "About the Partnership," Partnership for a Drug-Free America, http://www.drugfree.org/Portal/About/ (accessed June 5, 2006).
13 OnPoint Marketing and Promotions, "Cause Marketing Defined," OnPoint Marketing and Promotions, http://www.onpoint-marketing.com/cause-related-marketing.htm (accessed June 5, 2006).
14 Reed Hundt, (speech, Association of National Advertisers, Washington, DC, April 17, 1997), http://www.fcc.gov/Speeches/Hundt/spreh720.html (accessed June 5, 2006).
15 Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “New Media and the Future of Public Service Advertising: Case Studies, March 2006," Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, http://www.kff.org/entmedia/7469.cfm (accessed June 5, 2006).
Fig. 6.1 Courtesy of the National Archives, Still Picture Records (ARC Identifier 533663).
Fig. 6.2 From North Carolinians and the Great War, Documenting the American South http://docsouth.unc.edu/wwi/posters.html
Fig. 6.3 Courtesy Ad Council and American Red Cross.
Fig. 6.4 James R. Mock and Cedric Larson, Words that Won the War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939), 64.
Fig. 6.5 http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/british/images/77vc.jpg
Fig. 6.6 Stephen Vaughn, Holding Fast the Inner Lines (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1980), 171.
Fig. 6.7 Vaughn, 188.
Fig. 6.8 Courtesy Ad Council.
Fig. 6.9 Parents, November 1945
Fig. 6.10 Parents, February 1945
Fig. 6.11 Colliers, October 7, 1944
Fig. 6.12 Colliers, October 7, 1944
Fig. 6.13 Rosie the Riveter
Fig. 6.14 Courtesy New Hampshire State Library http://www.state.nh.us/ww2/loose.html
Fig. 6.15 Courtesy New Hampshire State Library http://www.state.nh.us/ww2/loose.html
Fig. 6.16 http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/wpapos:@field(NUMBER+@band(cph+3b49005))
Fig. 6.17 http://www.fs.fed.us/r9/wayne/facts/smokey_bear.html
Fig. 6.18 http://www.smokeybear.com/vault/default.asp
Fig. 6.19 Courtesy Ad Council and Keep America Beautiful.
Fig. 6.20 Courtesy Keep America Beautiful.
Fig. 6.21 Courtesy Keep America Beautiful.
Fig. 6.22 Courtesy Ad Council and UNCF.
Fig. 6.23 Courtesy Ad Council and UNCF.
Fig. 6.24 Courtesy Ad Council.
Fig. 6.25 Courtesy Ad Council and US Army.
Fig. 6.26 Courtesy Ad Council and US Army.
Fig. 6.27 Courtesy Ad Council and US Army.
Fig. 6.28 Courtesy Ad Council and US Army.
Fig. 6.29 Courtesy Ad Council and US Army.
Fig. 6.30 Courtesy The United Way.
Fig. 6.31 Courtesy Partnership For a Drug-Free America.
Fig. 6.32 Courtesy Partnership For a Drug-Free America.
William M. O'Barr
William M. O'Barr is Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University where he has taught since 1969. He holds secondary appointments in the Departments of Sociology and English. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern, Dalhousie, and Oxford Universities. He has been recognized for his outstanding undergraduate teaching by both the Duke University Alumni Association and Trinity College (Duke University). His course, Advertising and Society: Global Perspectives, is one of Duke's most popular undergraduate courses. His many seminar courses include Advertising and Masculinity, Children and Advertising, and The Language of Advertising.
He is author or co-author of ten books, including Culture and the Ad: Exploring Otherness in the World of Advertising, Rules versus Relationships, and Just Words: Law, Language and Power. He has conducted anthropological research in East Africa, Japan, and the United States. In addition to his interest in social and cultural aspects of advertising, Professor O'Barr has researched law in a variety of cultural settings.
In 2000, he founded Advertising & Society Review and served as editor from 2000 to 2005. He is author of Advertising and Society — An Online Curriculum which will consist of 20 units published as supplements to AS&R.