They pulled all-nighters. They worked weekends. The young advertising copywriters at the Draftfcb advertising agency in California had landed a big account, but it wasn’t a car company or fast-food chain. It was the federal government.
Smokey Bear, a character in some of the government’s most iconic public service ads — “Only you can prevent forest fires” — needed a makeover, a reinvention, maybe a new personality.
“This was just this awesome, huge honor,” said Eric Springer, chief creative officer at Draftfcb Springer Southern California. “This was as cool as working for Coke. Brand government doesn’t have to put a bad taste in your mouth.”
Some of the retro-cool slogans made famous by a PSA: Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. You can learn a lot from a dummy. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. Take a bite out of crime. The toughest job you’ll ever love.
The ads have long captured the public’s imagination, with characters and slogans that have become a part of the American vernacular and still resonate in the national psyche. Even in the toughest of economic times, ad agencies covet these largely pro bono accounts because they have the potential to influence the culture for decades.
But gaining a new generation’s attention requires cultural adaptation. In the past, viewers were captive audiences who collapsed in front of the television after school. Today they are busy checking text messages and scrolling Vine videos during commercial breaks.
Young people are experts at bypassing advertising completely, posing a challenge to federal agencies and their advertising partners eager for ways to penetrate the American mind-set as deeply as the classics did.
About $1.5 billion was donated in media time to government and nonprofit ads last year, with about $600 million for 19 government campaigns addressing such issues as hunger and anti-bullying.
In addition, the government and nonprofit organizations have increased social media budgets for public service ads from $300,000 in 2009 to about $1 million last year to pay for social media teams, according to the Ad Council, which works with ad agencies to produce national public service ads on behalf of the federal government and other nonprofit groups.
The 69-year-old Smokey, for instance, now has a Twitter feed. He’s on Instagram. He’s reportedly the only bear on LinkedIn. On a recent Facebook post, Smokey Bear declared himself “a friend of hipsters.”
Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the council, said a crucial question is where does the target audience get its information. “If that’s Facebook or Twitter, that’s where we want to be,” she said.
Apart from changing the medium, the government’s volunteer ad executives also have to change the tone of the message.
Today peer-to-peer endorsements and reviews on sites such as Yelp and TripAdvisor are much more valuable than the government, or even a celebrity, telling you what to do, said Adonis Hoffman, who is on the National Advertising Review Board and is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.
“So if you want to cut through the clutter and reach young minds, then you really need user-generated content. You better get people giving you thousands of likes on Facebook or re-tweeting your ad,” Hoffman said.
There’s also a deeper distrust of government messages today, especially with a generation scarred by the economic crash and the lack of jobs, millennials say.
“Tone is everything. The government shouldn’t come across like big, bad dad telling you what to do,” said Nathalie Con, 24, strategic planner at RPA Advertising, which works on a campaign for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dubbed “Stop the texts. Stop the wrecks.”
In its heyday, 1970s ads such as Keep America Beautiful and the crying-Indian campaign — in which actor Iron Eyes Cody paddled a canoe through a polluted, trash-strewn river, shedding a single tear — forever stigmatized littering.
In the 1980s, Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry and their irreverent slogan — “You can learn a lot from a dummy” — were credited, along with new laws, with boosting seat belt usage from 14 percent in mid-1980s to 85 percent in 2010, according to David Strickland, administrator with the NHTSA.
“These ads just really impacted me as a kid. Characters like Smokey and Vince and Larry were touchstones and really changed behavior that today we would find shocking, like driving with your baby on your lap or smoking while pregnant,” Strickland said. “We want to do the same thing with texting while driving and other social issues today.”
Inside the creative living room of Draftfcb, Springer’s team of young copywriters asked themselves: “How do you update Smokey, who has such cultural currency, but avoid sounding like he’s lecturing?”
Smokey Bear was long a World War II-era scold, sternly warning Americans in doom-filled comic books and radio spots about a “fiery holocaust” enveloping forests when campers carelessly played with matches.
But recently, the government used research by the Ad Council to target 18- to 34-year-olds who go hiking and camping, said Helene Cleveland, forest fire prevention manager for the U.S. Forest Service.
The Forest Service knew it had to update Smokey, since many remember him from childhood but haven’t heard from him in a while.
“Smokey keeps up with the times. That was just really important to us,” Cleveland said. “We wanted his tone to resonate.”
So the team at Draftfcb decided to make Smokey a hugger.
“We thought, ‘Who wouldn’t want a Smokey Bear hug?’ ” said Springer, whose other clients include Motorola and Nestle.
And so the video “Smokey Bearhug” was born. In it, a couple douses a campfire and makes sure it is completely extinguished. Suddenly, a towering Smokey appears and gives the boyfriend a giant hug. His girlfriend instantly snaps a picture.
“Uh, Smokey just gave me a bear hug,” he says, stunned.
“Already posted it,” his girlfriend says.