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The Competing Interests Behind Smokey Bear And The Crying Indian

Sep 27, 2013
Originally published on September 27, 2013 12:26 pm

You might remember phrases like "only you can prevent forest fires," spoken by Smokey Bear or "take a bite outta crime," from McGruff the Crime Dog. But how much do you really know about the company behind these iconic campaigns? Tell Me More guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with Wendy Melillo, author of the new book How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns about some of the hidden messages within these ads.

Interview Highlights


On The Companies Behind The Crying Indian

As the ad industry is praising it, environmental groups are crying foul, arguing that, look who this ad is done on behalf of. The sponsoring organization is a Stamford, Connecticut based non-profit called Keep America Beautiful... The people who are behind Keep America Beautiful are the packaged good manufacturers in this country. So we're talking — McDonald's, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Reynolds Aluminium, Nestle Waters, the American Chemistry Council — these are the people who produce both the chemicals and the packaging material that ends up in our waste stream and in our garbage stream.

On How Smokey Bear Can Make Forest Fires Worse

Smokey preaches a fire suppression message. And if you talk to fire historians and people who study fire, this is a problem with our wildfire problem we have today. If you suppress fire, naturally occurring fires caused by lightning don't burn off that underbrush. And if you don't burn off that underbrush, when you do get one of these out-of-control fires, it just is very difficult to control. So the fire suppression message was problematic.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

We turn now to the world of advertising, specifically public service announcements. You might remember phrases like - only you can prevent forest fires - spoken by Smokey Bear. Or - take a bite out of crime - from McGruff, the crime dog. Those ads have become iconic, but not much is known about the company behind them. Joining us now to talk about this is Wendy Melillo. She is an assistant professor of communications at American University and author of the new book "How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns." Welcome.

WENDY MELILLO: Thank you for having me.

HEADLEE: People are obviously very aware of the ad campaigns, right? That's the entire purpose. But your book is telling us a little bit more about this group that made them. The Ad Council began as part of the war effort in the 1940s, right? What was the mission?

MELILLO: The Ad Council is a nonprofit group based in New York City, and the original mission was, as I describe in the book, a brilliant public relations move because the advertising industry was under attack and under threat of federal regulation. And consumer groups were arguing that they're selling us goods and services that we don't need and it needs to be regulated more. And one of the ways the industry fought back was to create an organization called the Ad Council and what a brilliant way to respond because they offered their services to a nation at war.

HEADLEE: One of the most iconic ads - and this is a specific situation that will explain why this is important - is the crying Indian, which was aired in 1971. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country. And some people don't. People start pollution - people can stop it.

HEADLEE: And of course you're seeing these images of a Native American man, very dignified looking, and he's not saying anything. He is simply weeping.

MELILLO: When somebody tosses a bag of garbage at his feet, as he's up on the beach after he leaves his canoe, you see that memorable tear roll down his face. And that is a very riveting image, and the ad industry loved it. This won all kinds of awards.

HEADLEE: But then, let's talk again about how this came up. It came to be a problem, and again it's because of who's behind the ad.

MELILLO: As the ad industry is praising it, environmental groups are crying foul. Arguing that, look who this ad is done on behalf of. The sponsoring organization is a Stanford Connecticut-based nonprofit called Keep America Beautiful - and it's a wonderful name, keep America beautiful, but this isn't your grassroots Sierra Club. The people who are behind Keep America Beautiful are the packaged goods manufacturers in this country. So we're talking McDonald's, Pepsi-Cola, Coca-Cola, Reynolds Aluminum, Nestle Waters, the American Chemistry Council. These are the people who produce both the chemicals and the packaging material that ends up in our waste stream and in our garbage stream. And so when you combine that with the Ad Council's model, which is to put focus on the individual actions people can do - it's telling us as Americans yes, pick up your litter - they have a new one on currently with Keep America Beautiful on recycling. We can recycle...

HEADLEE: Stop looking at us. You're in charge of this, right?

MELILLO: But what about the role of corporations in solving the pollution problem we have in this country?

HEADLEE: And, to a certain extent, that's the same issue many people had with the Smokey the Bear campaign. We mentioned Smokey earlier. Let's take a listen to one of the ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

SMOKEY: Please, don't be careless. Remember, only you can prevent forest fires. Only you.

HEADLEE: Oh, no! You mention in your book that many people say this isn't an actually a helpful message for forest fires. Why?

MELILLO: Because Smokey preaches a fire suppression message. And if you talk to fire historians and people who study fire, this is a problem with our wildfire problem that we have today. And if you suppress fire - naturally occurring fires caused by lightning don't burn off that underbrush. And if you don't burn off that underbrush, when you do get one of these out-of-control fires, it just is very difficult to control. So the fire suppression message was problematic, as well as it sends a message to people who live off of the land - the agrarian economy that burns parts of the forest to grow crops or let cattle graze. Smokey doesn't speak to them.

HEADLEE: All right. Well, let's talk about an ad that was successful. This one was about bringing African-Americans into higher education. And the tagline here is one most people remember - a mind is a terrible thing to waste. How do we know this was successful?

MELILLO: You look at the numbers of people who ended up going to college as a result of this campaign, you know, a 40-plus year campaign. And the numbers are astronomical. At the time, the first TV spot aired, called don't waste a mind. It was 1972 - people didn't even think African-Americans could, and some thought even should, go to college. And, you know, all this time later, African-Americans are in practically every college and university in this country.

HEADLEE: Although, I mean, that's not entirely due to the Ad Council's ad, right.

MELILLO: Well, they give a lot of credit to this campaign. Don't forget it's a fund-raising campaign. The United Negro College Fund gives this campaign tremendous credit because it encouraged people to give to historically black colleges. And this was a hard sell with the Ad Council at the time because we're coming off the decade of the 1960s with all the race riots. The word of the land was integration. You know, Brown versus Board of Education happened in '54 - the country wanted to, you know, integrate. And here we are,

we're about to launch a campaign...

HEADLEE: Speaking on behalf of mostly segregated universities.

MELILLO: Correct.

HEADLEE: Well, let's get to the dog in the room - the hound in the trench coat, McGruff the Crime Dog. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ADVERTISEMENT)

MCGRUFF: See those kids. Every day in this country, 60 kids disappear. Some run away, but a lot are kidnapped by strangers or even by people they know. So write to McGruff. And teach our kids to protect themselves. Help take a bite out of crime. (Crunching sound)

HEADLEE: All right this is different, although you still have this sort of emphasis on your individual action. How did this one turn out?

MELILLO: This one was interesting because, yes, there's the action, the individual action here, but this actually prompted the rise of neighborhood watch groups. And it deserves a lot of credit for doing that because think about it, at the time in the early 1980s, people said crime was the number one issue on their minds, however they didn't want to give more of their taxpayer dollars to police to help fight crime. So one of the things this campaign did was to not only raise awareness, but to get people out patrolling in their neighborhoods to look for unusual behavior or actions that could lead to crime or, you know, see a crime in action. And they called it in to police and this had an enormous effect. I recall, as a journalist, covering some of the take back the night, you know, efforts that happened in neighborhood communities, where people just went out and took control of their neighborhood. So that was a very important part of this campaign.

HEADLEE: The Ad Council's still very active today, right?

MELILLO: Absolutely. It is the premier organization we have in this country for public service advertising. And it does a lot of good. My goal here with this book is to take a look at the model and recognize that there are some limitations, and let's all work together to see how we can improve this to make it even better.

HEADLEE: That's Wendy Melillo. Her new book "How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America," is out now. She joined us in our Washington studios. Wendy, thank you so much.

MELILLO: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.