The Ad Council Is Saving Lives and Winning Emmys

Andrew Littlefield By Andrew Littlefield January 24, 2017

The first thing people seem to want to know about an award like the Emmy is if it’s heavy.

It’s a silly question, but it was the first thing I asked, too. If I were the analyzing type, I’d say it’s probably a subconscious—thinly-veiled—probe to see if the owner of said award will allow the inquirer to hold it.

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They did, by the way. It has a healthy weight to it, nice and substantial. It’s one of those iconic awards that I can’t imagine ever becoming numb to seeing in your office.

And there it sits, golden and proud, on a marble shelf behind the reception desk at the Ad Council’s New York City headquarters. Two of them, in fact, but it’s the newest one that seems to elicit the most pride amongst the staff. A plate across the bottom shouts in all capital letters “2016 PRIMETIME EMMY AWARDS – OUTSTANDING COMMERCIAL.”

The winning work was a Public Service Announcement titled “Love Has No Labels.” It’s a short but powerful appeal for compassion; a reminder for the public to see beyond someone’s exterior, to the common humanity that’s often lost in prejudice.

Love Has No Labels EmmyFor 75 years, the Ad Council has been harnessing the power of advertising in the name of public good. With the help of Madison Avenue’s biggest names, they’ve created a litany of iconic advertising campaigns—Smokey the Bear, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” the Crash Test Dummies, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,” the Crying Native American, “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” and countless more.

But none of that comes easy. Advertising has always been an uphill battle, but few marketers have as steep a path as the Ad Council. They’re not only making work that stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the best ads on the airwaves, but they’re using that power for good.

It’s one thing to sell soap, it’s another thing to sell entirely new attitudes and behaviors.

A Unique Campaign

“Outstanding Commercial” is an Emmy category that’s only been around for seven years, but the Ad Council’s entry is the first Public Service Announcement (PSA) to win. The nomination list is a hall-of-fame of the biggest spenders in advertising: Procter & Gamble, Nike, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Chrysler, Apple, and other giants with billion-dollar ad budgets.

Don’t let the short history fool you—winning that prize as a nonprofit is a big damn deal.

The gravity of that moment wasn’t lost on Ellyn Fisher, who was there when it happened. She was there because it was, in part, her award. “I scream cried,” recalls Fisher, the Senior Vice President of Public Relations and Social Media at the Ad Council. She’s been there almost 16 years, for hundreds of campaigns, but “Love Has No Labels” is a special one.

For one, there are the numbers the campaign produced. The original video has been viewed over 165 million times—the “second most-viewed activism video ever behind Kony 2012,” according to Fisher. That success came quickly, too. By the end of the first day, they had racked up nearly 12 million views. By the end of day two, that number had ballooned to 40 million.

“I was clicking refresh on the Facebook page, and it was the most unbelievable moment,” recalls Fisher. “We’re yelling ‘30,000!’ ‘80,000!” across the office.”

Then there’s the unique evolution of the campaign. It was first launched on Upworthy’s Facebook page, then later cut down for television slots. From there, the tagline bloomed into a campaign featuring events, social media, and a new video this year featuring the popular professional wrestler John Cena—another breakaway hit.

Then there’s the ad itself. Three minutes isn’t exactly much time to tell a story, but getting through the three minutes it takes to watch “Love Has No Labels” without getting choked up is a tall order:

It’s Valentine’s Day, 2015, on a sunny beach in what looks to be Southern California. A bass tone rumbles as we see shoppers walking along a crowded sidewalk. As the piano lick from Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” begins to play, the crowd stops to watch a large black screen, set on a stage in the middle of a plaza. On the screen are two skeletons locked in an embrace. The camera shows people in the crowd murmuring, and the skeletons separate and walk towards opposite edges of the screen. As they reach the border, two women peek out from each side and smile at the crowd. They walk to the center of the stage (in front of the screen this time) embrace again, and wave to the crowd. A graphic behind them appears with the words “Love Has No Gender.”

This continues with different pairs of friends, lovers, siblings, and families who dance, hug, and smile together—Love Has No Race, Love Has No Religion, Love Has No Disability, and so forth.

As it continues, we see the crowd cheer and wipe tears. The commercial ends with portraits of each pair as they discuss their friendship and what love means to them.

It packs a powerful punch.

Evidently, the Emmy committee felt the same way. The spot beat out some creative entries—Google’s “Year in Search,” Snickers’ “Marilyn,” Gatorade’s “Dear Peyton,” and Honda’s “Paper.”

So how do you make a PSA that tops these titans?

The Process

The Ad Council was founded a few weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack as The War Advertising Council, with the initial mission of selling War Bonds. After the War, they changed their name to the Ad Council and shifted their mission to using the power of advertising to serve the public good.

It starts with a partner. The Ad Council partners with various nonprofit and government agencies to create messaging for their particular causes—drunk driving prevention and seat belt education for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, awareness of the early signs of autism for Autism Speaks, etc. They get hundreds of requests a year, but in order to maintain Emmy-winning quality, they can only take on about five new campaigns every year while maintaining ongoing campaigns. The message and mission of a campaign is brought to ad agencies based on expertise or desire to help with a specific mission.

The Ad Council works with some of the top ad agencies in the world: BBDO, Y&R, Saatchi & Saatchi, Ogilvy & Mather, McCann Erickson, R/GA, and more. Some of these relationships have existed for decades—FCB created Smokey the Bear in 1944 and they’re still creating work for the campaign, making it the longest pro-bono relationship in advertising history. The agencies volunteer their time—a big ask for top talent. But Fisher says they’ve never had a shortage of agency volunteers. In fact, they’re eager to lend their skills to the nonprofit’s message. It beats the hell out of writing taglines for soap.

Sometimes, the campaigns seem to work on the very people that make them. After working on a shelter pet adoption campaign, copywriters and art directors from J. Walter Thompson adopted pets of their own. “They all had pins on with their adopted pet at the next creative meeting,” says Fisher. “It really becomes a part of their culture.”

After working with the nonprofit partner to find the best target and message, the Ad Council hands the research to their agency partner for the campaign. With market research in hand, the agency sets to work on their creative brief. Briefs are focus-grouped and presented to the Ad Council and their review board—a volunteer group of senior ad executives—before it’s finally presented to the client. From there, it goes into production.

In the past, the Ad Council would do promotion for campaigns after they were developed by the agencies. “Now, with the evolution and explosion of digital and social media, our campaigns are always on and we’re developing content year round, supplementing what the agency is doing,” explains Fisher. Influencer outreach has evolved, too. While the Ad Council still partners with big name celebrities like John Cena and Rachel Ray, they’ve also signed on some social media stars and YouTubers. A recent campaign recruited fashion vloggers to create videos on donating to and shopping at Goodwill stores.

This is particularly effective as vloggers seem to have a special relationship with their audiences that traditional celebrities don’t have. “They consider them friends,” says Fisher. “When you find the right influencer who really believes in the cause, it can be really impactful.”

Changing Hearts and Minds

The challenge for the Ad Council lies in what they’re trying to do through media advertising: change the attitudes and behaviors of the general public. In theory, it makes sense—if brands can use advertising to influence buying decisions, why not also use it to influence health and safety decisions?

But does it actually work?

Research data suggest that it does, but it’s a delicate balance.

A 2009 study from Health Communication found that fear-inducing messages as well as disgust-inducing messages worked to catch viewer’s attention and memory for anti-tobacco ads, but combining the two had a negative effect. The Ad Council does more than just recruit a well-known celebrity tell you to do something. Messages are carefully constructed, and campaigns run for at least three years—the minimum amount of time needed to effectively communicate mass message to the public. Campaigns are often paired with nationwide education and reinforcement measures as well.

Take drunk driving, for example. The Ad Council has been running campaigns on this subject since 1983 (“Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk”). But in addition to their media work, law enforcement agencies have run their own education and enforcement campaigns. Alcohol brands ran their own awareness campaigns. Schools educate students on the dangers of drunk driving. Lawmakers strengthened punishments.

All that work has had real, tangible results. “Before ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,’ you were more likely to hear ‘One More for the Road,’” says Fisher. “These campaigns resulted in incredible cultural change that has saved lives.”

Drunk driving deaths have been cut in half over the last three decades. Ad Council campaigns have also contributed to doubling the percentage of parents who talk to their child’s doctor about autism, and 20,000 children have been adopted as a result of their foster care campaign.

While impressive, these types of statistics also underscore just how difficult the job of the Ad Council is. How do you “sell” the idea of adopting a child in a commercial?

It all comes back to the research.

“The insight was that a lot of prospective parents felt they weren’t good enough; that it was daunting to be a parent,” says Fisher. “The tagline was ‘You Don’t Have to Be Perfect to Be a Perfect Parent,’ so the ads took a comical approach, which I don’t think had been done before.”

Quantifying these impacts can be a challenge, with success often being measured in decades rather than months.

“Measurement is really hard; how do you isolate the impact of these campaigns?” says Fisher. “But also, it’s really hard to change deep-rooted attitudes and behavior. Our campaigns come on for a minimum of three years so that we have the time and consistent messaging out there to really shift behaviors.”

A Way Forward

In the latest iteration of the “Love Has No Labels” campaign, we see wrestler John Cena, clad in a t-shirt, walking down Main Street.

“Love,” he says, speaking to the viewer. “For a word designed to unite, it can also be pretty divisive.”

It’s a statement that’s as true as it is tragic. The campaign seems to be needed now more than ever. But even in the face of hateful rhetoric, “Love Has No Labels” strikes a nerve and shows longing for love and acceptance, stirring in the minds of the country.

But it’s more than just a reminder to be kind. The original video has become something of a guiding light in trying times.

“At appropriate times, when things happen in the country and the world, people look to the campaign for inspiration and love and positive and empowering messages.”

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