Bet you didn’t know: the Ad Council and public service campaigns

Ad Council

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Do you sometimes see or hear a public service announcement that is produced by the Ad Council for a nonprofit organization or a government agency?

Did you assume that the nonprofit organization or agency received that public service announcement  for free?

I did.  Until this week.  But I was wrong about that.

The Ad Council takes credit for these campaigns, and the public perception is that the Ad Council is responsible for them.  For example, NPR just recognized them for 70 years of “Ad Council campaigns.”

But the truth is, the campaigns are initiated by other nonprofit organizations or the federal government; advertising agencies (such as BBDO and Arnold) contribute the creative at no cost; and the advertising space is donated by publishers that can’t sell the space (the leftovers) and broadcasters, who are mandated as a condition of their license to allot a certain percentage of their broadcast time to airing public service announcements.

You won’t see these nonprofits, government agencies, and advertising agencies getting much credit from the Ad Council on the Ad Council Facebook Page, however (at least, not until I mentioned it yesterday!)  The Ad Council claims the campaigns as their own — and they also take credit for the impact.  And I don’t think that’s right.

So if the Ad Council doesn’t come up with the idea, execute it creatively, or pay for advertising space, what is the Ad Council’s contribution?  And is it fair for them to claim these campaigns as their own, as well as their impact to the community?

Well, the Ad Council does make a contribution, for a price.  It actually charges some pretty hefty fees to federal agencies and nonprofit organizations for “managing” the production and distribution of PSAs.  In most cases, this “sponsorship” amounts to many thousands of dollars.   The agencies and nonprofits are expected to assume all costs of production (which the Ad Council expenses to the IRS – seems odd to me!).  The nonprofits and agencies also pay project management fees paid to the Ad Council.  For example, Autism Speaks paid the Ad Council $844,000 in fees in a recent year (as reported to the IRS).

Maybe that’s a great price for what Autism Speaks received that year, I don’t know.  But I’d be curious to know what exactly they were paying for, if the creative and space were already donated.  Stock photography?  Or maybe it helped pay for the Ad Council president’s $862,000 annual compensation package.

Did I mention that the Ad Council was a nonprofit organization?  How do you feel about a nonprofit organization paying its CEO $862,000?  Still consider them benevolent?

In their most recent tax report, the Ad Council claims that it received nearly $32 million in program revenue from nonprofits and federal agencies, as well as nearly $9 million in donations and grants.

What is your opinion now of the Ad Council?  And do you think they should take credit for these public service campaigns?

About Mary Fletcher Jones

Mary Fletcher Jones is a mom, teacher, and blogger. Her blogs include Autumn in Virginia, Cool Yule Blog, and You Can't Make This Stuff Up, among others. She is also the creator of "Living Well With Autism," an online resource for caregivers of children, teens, and adults with autism and related special needs.

Posted on March 17, 2012, in Advertising Tips, Nonprofit Marketing Tips and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I am not so sure I want my tax dollars spent on an add counsel advertisement telling people that the word ” Gay ” in inappropriate to use. I am not so convened that it is a good thing that our government is telling people what words to use. It seems that this behavior dances around the first amendment limitations in a way that is not in the publics best interest. Additionally in an economy where our National Deffest exceeds our gross domestic product, should the government be spending money on such a gay advertisement 😉

    • Bryan, you are under the impression that this is a federally funded campaign, and you are mistaken. The “ThinkB4YouSpeak” campaign is not funded with tax dollars. It’s funded by a nonprofit organization, GLSEN. The Ad Council is also a nonprofit organization. They would receive money from GLSEN to launch this campaign. So the campaign is not funded with your tax dollars, anymore than any other nonprofit organization is. The federal tax dollars that go to the Ad Council support federal ad campaigns, like Smokey the Bear, etc. This is not a federal ad campaign.

      But even given that, I think the campaign makes a case that using the word “gay” in derogratory contexts is hurtful to many, many people. It is not saying the word is inappropriate to use in correct contexts; for example, a person may self-identify as “gay” in their sexual orientation. The ad is trying to persuade you to make a change in your behavior, but it is not forcing, compelling, or penalizing you for not making that change. This ad/PSA is attempting to educate and influence people, but there is no power in it to take away your right to freedom of speech.

      Apart from that, the advertisement is sensitive, well-produced, creative, timely, and much-needed. I am glad it is on the air. I hope you will consider that point of view, and refrain from using the word “gay” as an insult or descriptive term for something bad in the future. You have the right to say what you want in the privacy of your own home, but you should be aware of the limitations of freedom of speech in terms of how it affects other people. Other people have rights, too. People have the right to be treated humanely, and our laws support that. For example, that speech would not be acceptable in any public school or workplace. Continuing to use hurtful speech like this doesn’t help you, and it is very hurtful to many people.

  2. Hello,

    Thank you for the article! I was just wondering if you might be able to point me to the IRS report where you found the $844,000 expense number? I have been trying to look up the number for myself, but haven’t been able to find it anywhere, so I’d really appreciate if you could point me in the right direction. Thank you!

  3. here here. I had a suspicion the government is behind this


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