An unconventional campaign that starts with more than $10 million worth of donated outdoor advertising space, promoting values like determination, perseverance and selflessness, is beginning today after a postponement.
The original introductory date? Sept. 13.
Needless to say, because of the intent of the public service campaign, those behind it - including an ambitiously named organization known as the Foundation for a Better Life - say they think Americans will be more receptive to its messages than they would have been had the national mood not changed so significantly after the terrorist attacks.
The campaign, which is to appear initially on about 10,000 billboards, signs and posters nationwide, was also modified during the postponement to add images related to events after Sept. 11. There will now be salutes to values like "unity," showing a child waving an American flag; "courage," illustrated by a dust- coated firefighter at the World Trade Center; and "determination," showing the now familiar photograph of firefighters raising a flag at ground zero.
How the campaign, which is intended to run for several years, is received may well prove to be a fascinating case study in the effectiveness - or lack thereof - of advertising that sells not products but what is called pro-social behavior.
Such campaigns seek to accomplish goals like encouraging the use of seat belts, discouraging driving while intoxicated or promoting tolerance. The Advertising Council in New York, the organization that coordinates public service campaigns for Madison Avenue, has introduced several pro-social efforts in the last eight weeks, including one supporting brotherhood, carrying the theme "I Am an American," by GSD& M in Austin, Tex., part of the Omnicom Group.
Late on Sept. 11, the better-life foundation and its partners in developing the values campaign, including the Outdoor Advertising Association of America and Jay Schulberg, a prominent former agency creative executive, agreed that it ought to be delayed.
In the meantime, the association urged members to donate space to post billboards and signs that read "In God we trust. United we stand" or simply "United we stand"; two months later, many of those signs are still visible in busy places like Times Square.
"We did a lot of thinking about what do we do, and people began to say, `It's more relevant than it was,' " said Gary Dixon, president of the foundation, which is based in Denver.
"Maybe there's a new sense of values now," he added, "that maybe we're more open to someone who does something good, who overcomes."
The foundation headed by Mr. Dixon, who offered a preview of the campaign in an interview this week, is an affiliate of the Anschutz Foundation, an organization with an endowment of about $700 million. The Anschutz Foundation was founded by Philip Anschutz, the billionaire chairman of Qwest Communications International, who also has interests in movie theaters, major league soccer and hockey, and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Since 1999, the better-life foundation has sponsored public service campaigns in media like television, billboards and the Internet; the new effort, carrying the theme "Pass It On," is perhaps the largest, and most earnest, to date.
"Obviously, some things changed enormously as a result of Sept. 11," said Mr. Schulberg, the former vice chairman and chief creative officer of the agency known as the Bozell Worldwide division of True North Communications; it is now the Bozell New York division of the Partnership unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. "It took a while for me to feel comfortable going forward."
At the same time, the campaign "was intended originally to celebrate people whose values represent the best in us, to motivate, inspire and challenge us to do a little better," he added, "and that premise has not changed."
After Mr. Schulberg retired from Bozell in December 1999, "one of the first things I wanted to do was write a book on values," he recalled in an interview.
"I was checking telephone messages and there was one that started, `I met you at a luncheon' - you know how many luncheons I'd been to - and I almost fell out of my chair," Mr. Schulberg continued. "It was Gary, telling me he'd just become president of a foundation that wanted a campaign on values."
The two got together and decided that the campaign should focus on what Mr. Schulberg called "the heroes all around us, whose stories are rarely told," like Brooke Ellison, a quadriplegic who graduated from Harvard, interspersed with familiar figures like athletes, who would be held up as role models for personal characteristics like "courage" (Muhammad Ali) and "class and grace" (the hockey star Wayne Gretzky).
"All of us can't be firemen," Mr. Schulberg said, "but we can demonstrate courage, determination, thoughtfulness, caring and compassion."
About a year after Mr. Dixon called Mr. Schulberg, the campaign contacted Nancy Fletcher, president and chief executive at the outdoor advertising association in Washington. Mr. Dixon was inspired by the association's role in a billboard campaign called "God Speaks," which generated enormous attention in 1999 and 2000.
The values campaign idea "seemed like it would be keeping with what we want to do with our public service advertising," Ms. Fletcher said. "And I got excited when I saw the creative from Jay. He knows how to create for outdoor, that's for sure."
After Sept. 11, the question was not if the campaign would proceed, Ms. Fletcher said, but rather "a when question," with a "clear understanding there also needed to be some new messages."
"I also think we will need to evolve the messages further, based on what's happening with the country," she added, "and who knows what that might be."
"The campaign always had dual goals," Ms. Fletcher said, "to inspire us as individuals to be better and to celebrate what makes us great, not only as people but as a country."
Is it too early to predict that if the campaign catches on, The Onion will produce parody versions of the signs? There could be a photograph of a mail carrier sorting letters to illustrate "courage" and a photograph of Michael R. Bloomberg opening his wallet to illustrate "determination."
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. November 9, 2001
Copyright © 2001 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.