In the 1970s the Ad Council, with the support of the advertising industry, the media and American business, ran some 28 ‘public service’ campaigns every year on topics such as ‘America, it only works as well as you do’, on productivity, and ‘Help America Work’, sponsored by the National Alliance of Businessmen. It was the largest single advertiser in the country. Its advertisements took up twice as much time and space as the top corporate advertiser, Procter and Gamble. It was able to do this on a tiny budget of $2 million a year because of the donated efforts of advertising agency executives and marketing people from top business corporations, as well as donated time and space for advertisements from media and publishing companies. For every dollar donated to the Ad Council it received approximately $640 worth of free commercial time.
The Ad Council’s extended campaign on economic education was far bigger and more ambitious than anything the Council had previously attempted. It was supported by so many major corporations that the Council boasted the list of supporters read like a ‘who’s who in American business’. It was also supported by the US Department of Commerce, not without some controversy at the time since the money had been earmarked for jobs and minority business opportunities.
According to Fortune magazine, the campaign was ‘largely the brainchild of Barton A. Cummings (pictured), chairman of the executive committee at Compton Advertising’ (now Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising). Cummings would have preferred a campaign that directly advocated free enterprise but the Ad Council’s charter would not allow it to advertise anything controversial so a campaign aimed ostensibly at improving economic understanding was seen as a way of achieving the same goal. Compton Advertising then designed the campaign.
The Ad Council told the media that ‘every communications technique that is appropriate for such a campaign will be used in this effort, which we anticipate will carry over for a three to five year period.’ The multimillion dollar campaign included media advertisements, dedicated newsletters, films, teaching materials and training kits, booklets, point of sale displays, messages on envelopes, and flyers included with bank statements, utility bills and insurance premium notices. The media contributed $40 million of free time and space to the campaign in the first two years.
Not everyone agreed that the campaign was impartial and the Public Media Center threatened a counter campaign, which was subsequently undertaken up by the People’s Bicentennial Commission but with far fewer resources and therefore less effect. One result however was that two of the major television networks, ABC and CBS, initially declined to broadcast ‘public service announcements’ advertising Ad Council booklets because they might have had to run free spots for opposing points of view. However the NBC network and some 300 individual television stations did run them, choosing to view them as objective and required no balancing point of view, despite a request from Jeremy Rifkin of the People’s Commission for the opportunity to advertise an opposing booklet.
The stated premise of the campaign was that people were economically illiterate and therefore needed economic education. According to the Joint Council on Economic Education (JCEE), ‘The more one knows about economics, the more one is likely to be supportive of the American economic system’. Of course that knowledge had to be tailored to achieve such a result. The unstated premise was that if people were educated to view the free enterprise system as business people saw it they would appreciate and defend it rather than criticise it.
In the lead up to the campaign, Compton Advertising undertook a survey of public attitudes to the economic system. The conclusion of this study was that most people didn’t understand how the economic system worked and their part in it. They looked to government intervention for problems such as inflation and the growing size of corporations.
Naturally those who were better off, with better jobs—professionals and businesspeople—cited personal freedom and mobility as a key advantage of the US economic system more often than the poor, less educated and blue collar workers. More affluent people also tended to be less critical of the economic system and to see it as requiring fewer changes. Even so, according to the authors of the report, ‘no evidence was found of any widespread overt feeling that fundamental structural changes are needed.’
Compton Advertising undertook a more quantitative national study in 1976 which included 22 agree/disagree questions. Responses from the 3000 people surveyed were analyzed as to their correctness despite the heavy judgemental/attitudinal component to many of the questions. For example, the table below shows some sample questions. The ‘correct’ answers are shown with an tick.
Survey of Economic Literacy
|Business alone decides what will be produced||38.6%||59.8% √||1.6%|
|The primary role of business is to provide goods and services the country needs||77.9% √||21.5%||0.6%|
|In general, when business profits are up, times are good and life is better for more people||81.1% √||18.3%||O.6%|
|Overall, the American economic system offers more freedom and opportunity to better oneself than other economic systems||91.6% √||7.3%||1.1%|
√ ‘signifies correct response
Although the Compton survey found most people were in agreement with business values indicating that the earlier employee and school campaigns had been successful, the Ad Council believed that these positive attitudes needed to be more widespread and harnessed to ensure that people understood that protection of the economic system meant leaving it unregulated and unchanged.
The campaign juxtaposed personal, political and economic freedom, arguing that constraints on economic freedom were tantamount to reducing personal and political freedom and that those who sought to ‘intervene excessively in the play of market forces,’ however well intentioned they might be, posed a major threat to those freedoms. Criticism of the economic system amounted to subversion of the political system.
The campaign sought to get maximum distribution of a booklet on America’s Economic System... and your part in it. The booklet was in colour and illustrated with Peanuts cartoons. It described the economic system in simple, idealised terms (along the lines of the Market story). It promoted the idea that everyone not only had a stake in the economic system but also had a say in it. It argued that everyone helps to make decisions in the system—governments, producers and especially consumers: ‘the key role that really makes everything work is played by you, in your role as consumer.’ Ordinary people also play a role as producers—’Workers are producers’—and as investors—’if you have a savings account, own life insurance, or are in a pension fund, you are helping to generate funds for investment purposes.’
The booklet emphasized the importance of hard work and increasing productivity ‘if we are to maintain competitiveness in selling goods and services both at home and abroad’. It reinforced the need for consumers to spend their money buying goods to ensure the security of their jobs: ‘Remember when we buy less than our economy is producing, eventually production goes down and unemployment increases.’ Naturally, it also defended the role of advertising: ‘Those who supply the best goods and services at the best prices generally will be the most successful. And it is through advertising that producers inform buyers about their goods and services....’
The booklet was careful to downplay the amount of profits made by corporations. It did this by using averages of all businesses and arguing that the profits made by corporations were small compared to the aggregate income of all individuals. It emphasized that the economic system was responsible for the high standard of living in the US and that personal freedom was intimately connected with economic freedom.
The Ad Council distributed millions of copies of these booklets to schools, workplaces and communities – some 13 million by 1979. According to the Council, advertisements for the booklets were sent to every media outlet and every magazine in the country. It was advertised free:
The booklet was reproduced in full in over 100 newspapers and magazines. Over 1,800 companies, 1,300 schools and 500 organizations ordered bulk copies for employees, students, members.
After one year of the campaign, Compton Advertising did another survey asking the same 22 questions. It estimated by extrapolation from its surveys that 46 million people had been reached by the advertising about the economic system, and 10 million remembered the Ad Council’s campaign specifically. Those who were aware of the Ad Council’s campaign had ‘a more positive attitude toward the economic system’ and ‘a more favourable attitude toward business’ and in general the respondents had a ‘better’ knowledge of the economic system, ‘more positive appraisal of the system’, and ‘less desire for government regulation of economic activities.’
A second stage of the campaign launched in 1977 involved a huge advertising campaign centred around the idea of an Economics Quotient (EQ) — an obvious reference to IQ. Advertisements asked ‘How high is your EQ?’ or ‘Do your kids have a higher E.Q. than you?’ and included quiz questions and answers so people could test themselves. The idea was to make people feel ignorant so that they would write away for the booklet, whilst at the same time making an ideological point. The ‘basic economic questions’ in the advertisements included:
True or False.
In 1975, the investment in equipment and facilities averaged almost $41,000 for each production worker in American industry.
True or False.
If you have a savings account, own stock, bonds or life insurance, or are in a pension fund, you are an investor in the U.S. economy.
The Ad Council produced two more booklets that year, one on employment and one on inflation and these were also subject to mass distribution. Also a picture book version of the original booklet was prepared for ‘low-level readers’ and children.