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Joe Jelen's Ads as Primary Sources: The Ad Council's Historic Campaigns

May 31 2011 Photo,  Smokey Bear Fire Prevention sign along State Highway 70, Jul. 1960, NARA

The Ad Council has been producing public service announcements attempting to affect change in society and serve the public interest for nearly 70 years. The campaigns take the form of print, radio, and television advertisements. They have run the spectrum of societal issues, from "Rosie the Riveter" and the campaign to place women in war jobs to contemporary ads related to predatory lending. The Ad Council has brought us memorable characters like Smokey Bear, McGruff the Crime Dog, and Vince and Larry (the two crash test dummies who convinced us to wear seat belts). But what do these public advertising campaigns say about America? How can we use these ad campaigns to better understand U.S. history?

Through analyzing the ads we can isolate time periods in history and understand what were believed to be the most pressing societal issues of the time. These campaigns tried to decrease behaviors that were believed to lead to social problems or promote behaviors that would lead to a better society. Thus, in seeking to understand the advertisements, we can help students uncover the contemporaneous sociology of the ad campaign.

Where to Start

You can begin by exploring the Ad Council's Historic Campaigns that highlight some of the more notable campaigns in the last 70 years. Each campaign is complete with background information and some have links to PSA videos associated with the campaign. An even more complete retrospective of past advertising campaigns is maintained by the Advertising Educational Foundation and can be accessed here.

How can we use these ad campaigns to better understand U.S. history?

I have found the site particularly useful in helping students understand more recent history. For instance, few would disagree that, socially, the 1980s were rocked by the AIDS epidemic. The site highlights PSAs to prevent the spread of AIDS, which represent a dramatic shift in societal norms with the public call for condom use. The ads on crime prevention featuring McGruff the Crime Dog also help illuminate the 1980s. These ads coincide with America's "war on drugs" and emphasis on law and order during the 1980s. 1970s culture was epitomized by environmental awareness featuring Ad Council PSAs showing Native Americans distraught to find their territory littered. These ads and more can be found in the Historic Campaigns section.

Using Ads in the Classroom

Teaching with advertisements as primary sources is beneficial in two ways. One, students are exposed to yet another example of primary sources that come with their own unique set of historical questions. Two, by learning how to unpack the intent of advertisements on people of the past, students are more apt to be able to recognize advertising manipulation in the present. The Ad Council dedicates a page of resources for educators that includes useful links and frequently asked questions. These pages also identify current advertising campaigns, which might be useful for students to identify some of the important topics of today compared to the important issues they find in earlier decades.

Before having students analyze advertisements as primary sources, it is important to model for students how advertisements should be read. Students should also be made aware of the strengths and limitations of using advertisements to understand the past. An excellent overview of these strengths and weaknesses can be found on page 11 of this guide to primary sources, from the Smithsonian's History Explorer, along with questions to guide students in analyzing advertisements.

By learning how to unpack the intent of advertisements on people of the past, students are more apt to be able to recognize advertising manipulation in the present.

A natural fit to teaching U.S. history through public service announcements would be to have students create their own PSAs. Students could be given a list of pertinent social issues to a particular time period or could be asked to research important topics on their own. Students could write a script and use a pocket camcorder to record their PSA. Editing could be done using iMovie, Windows MovieMaker, or any number of free online video editing tools. The purpose of the assignment is to help students understand the changing nature of social issues in the United States.

Another idea is to have students research the effectiveness of given historic campaigns. The Ad Council maintains a database of reports and figures related to the success of various PSAs. This is a condensed version highlighting the impact of the Ad Council's more famous campaigns. The purpose here is to help students see how effective advertising not only convinces people to buy products, but also can convince people to change behavior for the common good.

Selling Social Issues

The Ad Council works to address the most significant social issues of the day. With that purpose, the Ad Council offers a unique look into making sense of our social past by revealing important issues of the time. Advertisements offer students an opportunity to interpret an overlooked type of primary source of the past and establish connections to the present.

For more information 

Looking for more guidelines on using ads in the classroom? Historian Daniel Pope helps you make sense of advertisements, and historian Roger Horowitz analyzes historical documents behind 1950s potato chip advertising campaigns. This syllabus from a university history course also walks you through the steps of analyzing an ad.

Search our Website Reviews using the keyword "advertisement" for reviews of more than 200 websites featuring archived advertisements.

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