Our History

The Ad Council’s mission is to convene the best storytellers to educate, unite and uplift. By opening hearts and inspiring action, together we accelerate change.

As we look ahead to our future, we also continue to examine the lessons of our legacy, which stretches back through decades of American history to our WWII-era founding. Our goal is to assess this legacy honestly, both celebrating the progress and reckoning with the problematic, as we work every day to create an inclusive and equitable culture where everyone can thrive, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexuality, age or ability.

Read on to learn more about the history of the Ad Council.
James Webb Young, cofounder of the Young and Rubicam agency, first articulated an idea to industry giants including Raymond Rubicam, J. Walter Thompson and Leo Burnett. His idea? An organization that could bring the entire advertising industry together in service of social good. Three weeks later, Pearl Harbor was attacked.
The organization is incorporated as the Ad Council on June 25, but was quickly renamed the War Advertising Council with the intention of mobilizing the advertising industry around WWII efforts, producing propaganda including “Women in War Jobs,” “Buy War Bonds,” and “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”

The Ad Council now recognizes that, while emphasizing the importance of a unified American populace at home, some WWII messages from the War Advertising Council also stoked paranoia of non-white Americans and foreigners, including particularly disparaging portrayals of Japanese people.
Smokey the Bear
The story of Smokey Bear—who educates Americans about fire safety even today—begins during WWII, when fears of incendiary shells igniting wildfires in the forests of the Pacific Coast led to the creation of the Cooperative Forest Fire Prevention program.

In need of a mascot, the US Forest Service turned to advertising agency Foote, Coone & Belding (now FCB, which remains on the Wildfire Prevention campaign to this day) and created Smokey Bear, whose “Only You” message began on a series of posters and stamps in the 1940s. Not long after, Smokey began appearing in radio and TV PSAs, often accompanied by celebrities like Dolly Parton, Ray Charles, Betty White, and many more.

As the ever-evolving face of the longest-running campaign in American history, Smokey remains an enduring icon. Today you can find him spreading the message of wildfire prevention on TikTok and other social media platforms.
Starting in 1945, the Ad Council worked with the American Red Cross on public service advertising campaigns for more than 50 years. The PSAs raised public awareness of the various services provided by the Red Cross—they helped recruit blood donors, enlist volunteers and raise funds.

In the first month, the ads helped to recruit 30,000 volunteers. Two years in, the recruitment campaign increased young adult involvement in the Red Cross by 37%. In 1972, a special emergency campaign helped raise more than $15 million for the victims of Hurricane Agnes.

Through the years, campaigns also informed the public about steps that they could take to prevent and cope with health problems.
Following President Truman’s request for the organization to continue its work as a peacetime public service organization addressing the most pressing social issues of the day, the War Advertising Council once again became known as the Ad Council. Today we continue to operate as a national nonpartisan 501c3, building innovative campaigns to educate, unite and uplift.
The Advisory Committee on Public Issues was established to help identify the most pressing issues that the Ad Council would be in a unique position to address through its one-of-a-kind model. The committee lives on to this day.
Eleanor Roosevelt and General Eisenhower appeared in anti-communism work.
Our first annual Public Service Award Dinner took place, beginning our longstanding tradition of honoring executives for their philanthropy and fundraising for our campaigns.
The campaign promoting the Salk polio vaccine began, ultimately resulting in 80% of the at-risk population getting immunized.
The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.
Our campaign to raise awareness for President Kennedy’s Peace Corps program launched with one of the advertising industry’s most well-known slogans: “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.”

Alongside ad agency Young & Rubicam, the Ad Council created work that promoted public service in foreign countries while appealing to people across America—by 1965, more than a thousand people were clipping and mailing coupons from the ads every week.

The campaign lasted for 30 years.
An anti-pollution campaign for Keep America Beautiful launched, featuring an Indigenous character known then as “Crying Indian.” The campaign won two Clio Awards, and by its end in 1983, had helped reduce littering by 88 percent.

The titular character was played by an actor then known as Iron Eyes Cody, who had played Indigenous roles in Hollywood films for decades. After his death in 1999, it was confirmed that he was not of Indigenous heritage as he had claimed.

Today, we also acknowledge that the term “Crying Indian” is not how we would refer to an Indigenous person.
A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste
The beginning of a decades-long campaign to encourage Americans to support UNCF, “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” was launched.

The campaign has helped raise more than $2.2 billion and has helped to graduate more than 350,000 minority students from college or beyond. The slogan has remained unchanged for decades and has become part of the American vernacular.
McGruff the Crime Dog was created with the intention of improving neighborhood safety at the local level.
Nancy Reagan asked America to “Just Say No” to drugs.
Buzzed Driving Prevention
A new campaign to prevent drunk driving was born. Since launching, more than 68% of Americans report that they have tried to prevent someone from driving after drinking. Well-known slogans have included “Drunk Driving Can Kill a Friendship” and “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.”
For the first time, due to the recently passed Communications Act, major media companies were no longer legally obligated to donate support our work, and yet voluntary donated support from our partners exceeded $1 billion.
Vince and Larry
Two of the most iconic characters in our history started encouraging Americans to buckle up.

In 1985, only 21% of Americans were buckling their seat belts. Enter Vince and Larry, two bantering crash test dummies with a penchant for slapstick. Their message to Americans was simple: don’t be a dummy, and buckle up. The pair became so popular that they had their own line of action figures. They retired in 1999 and are estimated to have saved over 85,000 lives.

Now, the seat belt use rate number is at 90.4%, making Vince and Larry part of one of the most successful public service advertising efforts in history.
At a time when AIDS was extremely stigmatized and information was scarce, our campaign encouraged people to wear condoms for protection. This was the first time the word “condom” was used in a commercial.
I Am an American
Within days after 9/11, the Ad Council led the industry response with new work called “I Am an American.” The widely acclaimed ad emphasized the rich diversity of our country by featuring people of many ethnicities looking in the camera and simply saying, "I am an American.”
As part of First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative, new work launched to address childhood obesity.
Diversity & Inclusion
Our iconic Love Has No Labels campaign, which champions diversity, inclusion and acceptance, launched with the “Skeletons” video. The video immediately went viral, becoming one of YouTube’s ten most-watched videos of the year, and won an Emmy for Outstanding Commercial—the first time a PSA received the honor. To date, the video has been viewed on YouTube more than 170 million times.

In August, 2020, the campaign released “You Will See Me,” which supported Black Americans who were disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. The PSAs featured Viola Davis, Questlove and Simone Biles and encouraged everyone to see the real person behind the mask.

And in 2022, the completely reimagined campaign launched a new phase called “Love Lives On,” which showed the impact every individual can have when responding to injustice. New short films created in partnership with the George Floyd Memorial Foundation, the OnePULSE Foundation and Cafe Maddy Cab directly addressed the murder of George Floyd, the mass shooting at the LGBTQ+ nightclub Pulse, and the continuing rise in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes.
Suicide Prevention (Teen and Young Adult Mental Health)
In partnership with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and the JED Foundation, Seize the Awkward launched to empower young adults to talk to each other about mental health. The campaign went on to receive the Shorty Award for Best Use of a Spokesperson for its partnership with Billie Eilish.
Coronavirus Response
In March, 2020, in partnership with the White House, CDC, HHS, and major media companies, the Ad Council launched its industry-leading response to the COVID-19 pandemic, rapidly and consistently getting people the information they needed to slow the spread.

At the same time, many existing campaigns including Love Has No Labels at Seize the Awkward pivoted to address issues like racial justice and mental health that were exacerbated by the pandemic and disproportionately impacted Black, Hispanic and other historically marginalized communities.

On August 10, we published our commitments to anti-racism and racial equity. We continue to refresh the page with updates on our progress.
It's Up To You
And in the largest and most urgent communications effort in American history, the Ad Council, COVID Collaborative and more than 300 cross-sector partners launched the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative.

The unprecedented initiative featured multiple campaigns designed to reach various hesitant communities, and featured Dr. Anthony Fauci, four American presidents, thirteen sports leagues, and 1,250 influencers—as well as vast networks of local health experts, pharmacists, faith-based groups and many, many more.
2022...and Beyond
2022...And Beyond
On July 6th, we relaunched our completely reimagined Creators for Good program, which leverages learnings from the COVID-19 Vaccine Education Initiative to inform our influencer and trusted messenger engagement strategy.

On October 3rd, in partnership with Opportunity@Work, Ogilvy and nearly 50 corporations, we announced a new collaborative effort that will inspire employers to remove hiring barriers that block the majority of workers in the U.S. from earning higher wages commensurate with their skills. The multiyear effort will focus on creating upward mobility for the more than 70 million workers in the U.S. who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs), such as community college, workforce training, bootcamps, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, rather than through a bachelor’s degree.

On October 17th, as the first phase of our commitment to address the devastating opioid epidemic, we launched new work educating young people about the growing presence of fentanyl in counterfeit pills.

And on November 7th, as part of our ongoing commitment to address the growing mental health crisis, we announced a multiyear mental health initiative in partnership with the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. Their $15 million lead donation is the single largest donation in Ad Council history.

These announcements reflect the Ad Council’s ongoing commitment to core issues including mental health, health equity, racial justice and diversity, equity and inclusion, and alongside our incredible partners, we won’t stop until together we have created a culture where every single person can not only survive but thrive.

Our Current Work

We are committed to working together to create a culture where everyone can thrive. Our current work addresses racial justice, mental health, gun safety, inclusion and belonging, and so much more.