An ambitious campaign meant to change behavior, not sell products, is under way, the first of its scope since Sept. 11 that is unrelated to the terrorist attacks.
The public service campaign seeks to recruit adults as mentors for children by designating January as what 17 nonprofit organizations hope will be the first annual National Mentoring Month.
The campaign is being supported with commercial time and other donations worth tens of millions of dollars from many media and marketing giants, including AOL Time Warner, the Walt Disney Company, General Electric, J. P. Morgan Chase, the Postal Service and Viacom.
The effort is the culmination of more than four years' work by the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, which has been a pioneer in seeking to determine whether the methods of Madison Avenue, typically devoted to persuading shoppers to switch consumer-product brands, can also be used to promote so-called pro-social behavior.
The health center hit a home run selling the concept of the designated driver, but struck out with an effort to encourage school-age children to shun violent conflicts.
"We've been doing well with the exposure for our mentoring efforts" since the creation of the Harvard Mentoring Project, said Dr. Jay A. Winsten, associate dean at the Harvard School for Public Health and the Frank Stanton director of the Center for Health Communication. He estimated that commercial time and ad space valued at more than $150 million had been donated to proselytize for mentoring since the project began in 1997.
"But we grew concerned we would not be able to maintain the high platform we've had," Dr. Winsten said. As a result, he and Susan Moses, a director of the mentoring project, worked on designating a mentoring month.
"There's no other major competing cause," Dr. Winsten explained, "and there's a maximum availability of air time" because many marketers reduce their ad budgets in January after the Christmas season, leading television and radio stations and networks to fill commercial slots with public service announcements.
The campaign was of course under development before Sept. 11, which brought a spate of public service announcements to encourage everything from tolerance to tourism. That prompted concerns the public would have grown weary of pro-social advertising by the time National Mentoring Month began.
"I don't think people measure how much public service advertising they've seen," said Alan D. Schwartz, vice chairman of the National Mentoring Partnership, an umbrella organization, who is also president and co-chief operating officer at the Bear Stearns Companies.
"Like all advertising, if the message is a good one," he added, "they receive it and respond to it."
"In the wake of Sept. 11, there's a feeling people are rethinking their priorities and want to give back," Mr. Schwartz said, "and mentoring is a hands-on opportunity to make a difference in someone's life."
That is reflected in commercials produced by the HBO division of AOL Time Warner and complementary print advertisements produced by Margeotes/Fertitta & Partners in New York, part of the Maxxcom division of the MDC Corporation.
The approach is surprisingly bottom-up rather than the typical top- down take on mentoring, proclaiming that mentors help youngsters achieve the big plans the children already have to "make the world a better place" rather than inculcating underachievers with goals decreed by the mentors.
"It was very clear it wasn't to be about needy, incomplete children who have to be `saved' by adults," said Tom Fontana, an executive producer of the HBO series "Oz" who donated his services as director and executive producer of the commercials. "It was about these children being incredible and having the potential to be extraordinary - if someone with a little knowledge can help them."
That is voiced by a theme in the spots and ads, which feature students from Washington Irving High School in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of Manhattan. "You'd be amazed by what kids really have on their minds," the theme goes. "Help them get there. Be a mentor."
The word has gone out to each AOL Time Warner division, said Kathy Bushkin, president of the company's foundation, "that this is an issue we'd like them all to support."
The spots are running on cable channels like CNN, local Time Warner cable systems and the WB broadcast network; the ads are appearing in magazines like Fortune, People and Time.
Other media outlets making their own contributions include the ABC unit of Disney; the CBS and Viacom Outdoor divisions of Viacom; the Fox Broadcasting Company division of the News Corporation; the NBC unit of General Electric; and Newsweek magazine, owned by the Washington Post Company.
Stations in more than two dozen major markets are designated as local TV partners for the mentoring month; for instance, WNBC-TV in New York, owned by NBC, is running public affairs programs and spots about mentoring that are paid for by J. P. Morgan Chase, which is also promoting mentoring on the screens of automated teller machines.
The Postal Service's contributions include a stamp saluting the mentoring month, issued on Jan. 10.
In other words, help stamp in mentoring.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. January 25, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.