Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Who's the real public for those public service ads?

       Some of the best ads on TV are public service ads. Also some of the worst.

       That's because of the way they're handled by advertising agencies. They're usually done pro bono, and when you work for nothing, that changes everything.

        For some agencies I worked for, pro bono work was a blessing. It gave creative people a break from tough, rigid clients. It also gave them a chance to win awards for the agency, when their regular clients' requirements didn't. So they put their best people on it, and let them show off in a world of show-offs.

       For other agencies, public service work was a pain. It always seemed to come at a busy time, used up resources, upset the normal work flow, and diverted attention from clients. So they put their interns and "kids" on it, and the results were, well, uneven.

        I always loved working on public service advertising. The clients were usually grateful, and let you do your thing. Illustrators, designers, and photographers could be leaned on to contribute their efforts, and we creative people were given free rein to do what we thought was right. Even if it was wrong.

       The work can be gratifying. One public service client of mine was the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services. We did the anti-smoking commercials for the government. They only wanted smokers to work on their account, and pack-a-day Harv headed up the crew. When we held meetings, secretaries were  afraid to come in the conference room, because the smoke was so thick. The most famous commercial we did was with Brooke Shields when she was about 16, explaining exactly how she felt about boys who smell from cigarette smoke.

       I've also done work for the United Way (Saul Bass did the logo for us); the Red Cross; The University of Michigan; the ARC; and even the Oakland Ballet and the Oakland Police Department. And the question always comes up: how do TV stations decide which public service ads to run? The answer might surprise you.

       It's not the client or the agency; not even the top dogs at the networks or stations. It's usually left up to the dead-tired engineer on duty, who has a shelf full of them. He picks the ones he personally likes to see, and plays them over and over again.

       Now you know why our Brooke Shields commercial was one of the most frequently-aired commercials in America.

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