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Ad Urges Parents 'Don't Drop Out on Your Kids'

A public service campaign encouraging students to stay in school is, in a first for such efforts, aimed at parents rather than children.

The commercials, which rely on humor, were created free by Bates USA in New York and carry the theme "Don't drop out on your kids." The ads show adults in a classroom exaggeratedly practicing parenting skills like affection and how to ask "How was school today?"

The commercials are the second part of Operation Graduation, coordinated by the Advertising Council in New York on behalf of the Army. For the Army, the goal is not to recruit troops but to help offset a startling statistic: each year, half a million students drop out of high school, an average of 1,300 students a day, according to the National Center for Education Statistics in Washington.

"Teenagers often act as though their parents' opinions don't matter, but research indicates parents really wield a lot of influence with their kids," said Naomi Verdugo, assistant deputy for recruiting and retention for the Army in Washington, explaining the campaign.

The Army is paying $1 million to $1.5 million for the campaign's marketing costs including production. The campaign is separate from the $95 million the Army spends annually on advertising to attract recruits. Those ads are created by Leo Burnett USA in Chicago, part of the Leo Burnett Worldwide unit of the Bcom3 Group.

Though Ms. Verdugo handles recruitment, she says the campaign is not directly related to recruitment. The Army does, she says, try to make sure that most recruits are high school graduates.

"Anything we can do to get more young adults to graduate from high school means that the pool of people eligible for the opportunities the Army offers is larger," Ms. Verdugo said. In addition, promoting education in donated advertising space - with ads bearing the Army logo - is not bad for the Army's image.

The spots aimed at parents show a class of adults being trained by an instructor on how to be involved in their children's lives. They depict parents learning how to hug a child or pat one on the back. One ad shows a parent practicing to say "You did great on that test. I'm real proud of you." The song "I've Got the Power" by Snap plays in the background.

The campaign does not abandon the youngsters, though. There are also humorous spots carrying the line "Dropouts make 42 percent less money than graduates" to emphasize the economic toll taken by young people who quit school. The ads are aimed at boys and girls ages 11 to 15.

In one commercial, a homeless man offers his cup of change to a young man who dropped out. In another, a dropout is eligible for only one job in a thick binder of openings. The job: advertising for Frenchy's House of Fries by wearing a French fry costume and holding a poster on the street. The theme of the ad is: "Stay in school. Give yourself a chance."

The effort is one of about 40 public service campaigns coordinated by the Ad Council in New York, which will begin distributing the ads next month to media outlets that are asked to donate time and space. Last year, the Operation Graduation campaign received $67 million in donated time and space, ranking seventh among the council's campaigns, according to the council.

So why make changes?

"Our research consistently indicates that parents have the greatest influence on their children's lives," said Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive at the Ad Council. "We knew that by targeting parents with messages about the critical role they play in their kids' lives just by being involved, these P.S.A.'s could play a significant part in reducing the alarming number of students who drop out of high school."

The two new themes replace earlier real-life testimonials featuring young people who talk about the benefits of returning to school after having dropped out. Those were created by Publicis in New York, part of the American operations of the Publicis Groupe. The earlier campaign also had some commercials and radio spots in Spanish, which were developed by Conill Advertising in New York, part of the Saatchi & Saatchi division of Publicis.

The Operation Graduation campaign began in November 2000, Ms. Conlon said, after the council was contacted by Louis Caldera, the secretary of the Army. As one of the largest employers of youth in the country, the Army continues to support the campaign under its new leadership; Mr. Caldera is now on the council's board.

The new campaign includes radio, outdoor and online ads and also has the sergeant major of the Army, Jack L. Tilley, serving as a spokesman talking to students.

Humor has replaced serious ads that research found did not relate to the intended audience, said Rob Slosberg, executive vice president and group creative director at Bates USA in New York, part of the Bates Worldwide division of the Cordiant Communications Group.

"Humor isn't anything new," Mr. Slosberg said. "But certainly it helps get their attention."

Perhaps the lighthearted jokes do not reflect the larger meaning the campaign has taken on for those who work on it.

"School is not just about getting a better job or making more money," said Mr. Slosberg, who is the father of two. "It's getting kids off the street, getting them in the state of mind to be more successful in whatever they do."


Allison Fass, The New York Times. June 25, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.