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  • Public Service Advertising and Propaganda*
  • William M. O'Barr (bio)

[Editor's Note: This article is a part of ADText.]

1. Introduction

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.

This unit also examines public service advertising in several other countries. It also compares public service advertisements with publicity, public relations, and propaganda.

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Fig. 1.

Posting Wartime PSAs in Times Square in 19171

2. 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.'"2

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.

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    Fig. 2.

    This Public Service Advertisement Urged Americans to Buy War Savings Stamps3

  • • 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."

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    Fig. 3.

    A Well-Known Public Service Ad from World War I4

  • • The Spies and Lies campaign that urged the public to suppress groundless rumors and gossip.

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    Fig. 4.

    This Campaign Called on the American Public in Yet Another Way5

  • • The Selective Service campaign that supported draft registration.

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    Fig. 5.

    This Famous Poster Recruited Men for the Army6

  • • The Kill Every Rat campaign that urged the extinction of grain-eating vermin.

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    Fig. 6.

    This Campaign Sought to Enlist the Public's Help in Reducing Food Shortages7

  • • A series of campaigns urging parents and sweethearts to write only cheerful letters to soldiers.8

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    Fig. 7.

    Those at Home Were Instructed on What to Say to Troops9

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 the 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.10

3. 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...