Marketing Campaign Case Studies

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


In 1999 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), a nonprofit corporation dedicated to the preservation and extension of constitutional liberties, hired its first advertising agency, New York City–based DeVito/ Verdi. The ACLU hoped to use consumer-advertising techniques to improve the image of the organization, which in recent decades had become vilified by conservatives in the United States. In addition, the advertising was to be used to call attention to particular causes backed by the ACLU. One issue that received its own campaign within the framework of the greater effort was the racial profiling of motorists stopped by the police.
The ACLU began its racial-profiling campaign in June 1999 by releasing a report on the issue and filing a lawsuit involving one of the cases it documented. In this way the organization was able to generate a great deal of publicity, which was important given the campaign’s mere $1 million budget. In late 1999 the first print ads appeared in newspapers. More advertising followed in 2000, including the ACLU’s first-ever television spots, which were run in Utah to put pressure on one of the state’s senators, Orrin Hatch, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The print ads succeeded in attracting attention by being provocative. One showed pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr., and Charles Manson with a headline that read: ‘‘The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right.’’
The ACLU’s racial-profiling campaign, which ran until the end of 2000, achieved its main goals. It brought a great deal of attention to the practice of racial profiling, forcing police departments to become more cautious about the way they approached traffic stops; also, many state legislatures introduced legislation to curb racial profiling. In addition, the campaign was recognized by the advertising industry, with Advertising Age naming it a Best of Show in its annual awards in 2001.

From its inception in 1920, when it supported the rights of conscientious objectors and opponents of America’s entry into World War I, the ACLU never shied away from controversy. Over the decades it made news through its participation in the well-known Scopes Trial that engendered a debate about evolution (1925); fought the U.S. Customs Service ban on the sale of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses in 1933; opposed the internment of more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II; supported school desegregation in the 1950s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s; opposed the war on drugs starting in the 1960s; supported reproduction rights in the 1970s while also defending the right of a neo-Nazi group to march through the streets of Skokie, Illinois, in 1978. While the latter issue cost the ACLU support from the left wing of the political spectrum, resulting in a dip in membership, in general the ACLU irritated conservatives. In the 1988 presidential campaign, Republican George H. Bush made Democrat Michael Dukakis’s ACLU membership an issue, attempting to disparage him by calling him a ‘‘card-carrying member of the ACLU.’’ The hatred of the ACLU among conservatives was further hardened in 1989, when the group convinced the U.S. Supreme Court to invalidate a Texas law that made flag desecration a punishable offense; likewise, it was later successful with the court when it recognized the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the 1996 case Romer v. Evans.
In early 1999 the ACLU began a general campaign that used the tagline ‘‘Support the ACLU.’’ The main issue pursued within it was the practice of police employing racial profiling in stopping motorists, a problem bitterly dubbed ‘‘DWB’’ (driving while black), a play on the term for a real crime, DWI (driving while intoxicated). The ACLU decided to hire an ad agency to develop consumer-style advertising. In doing so, its goals were to counteract the nefarious image that conservatives had created about the organization, to present its core values to the public, and to deal with specific issues. Four agencies vied for the account, which was awarded in June 1999 to DeVito/Verdi, a firm that was not unfamiliar with controversy. Two years earlier it had run afoul of New York CityMayor Rudolph Giuliani with a bus ad for New York magazine that used the tagline ‘‘Probably the only good thing in New York Rudy hasn’t taken credit for.’’ After the mayor had the ads removed, the New York chapter of the ACLU helped the magazine successfully argue to an appeals court that, in running the ad, the magazine was within its First Amendment rights. Upon winning the ACLU account, DeVito/Verdi president Ellis Verdi told the press, ‘‘We know from personal experience how effective they can be, and we look forward to communicating that message to the public.’’ The ACLU had never had difficulty generating publicity, but hiring a Madison Avenue ad agency represented a significant shift. ‘‘The organization has advertised in the past,’’ wrote Patricia Winters Lauro in the New York Times, in 2000, ‘‘but its approach has either been event-driven—the mass arrests of antiwar protesters—or, in recent years, all-text ads about issues that ran on op-ed pages in newspapers.’’

In press comments issued after the hiring of DeVito/ Verdi, ACLU executive director Ira Glasser said, ‘‘We want to target opinion leaders.’’ In addition, he noted, ‘‘we also want to reach out to a broader audience: those members of the public we call ‘persuadables,’ that is, people who are highly likely to share the ACLU’s core values even if they don’t agree with everything we do.’’ Those ‘‘persuadables’’ were not likely to be found among conservatives and those leaning to the political right in America. Rather, the ACLU was hoping to spur into action an audience that was ‘‘liberal, progressive, and somewhat shrinking,’’ as described to Lauro by Victor Kamber, head of the Kamber Group, which produced advocacy advertising for such groups as labor unions. Regarding the racial-profiling component of the general campaign, the advertising tried to influence police departments to change the way the way they stopped motorists based on race. It also reached out to state legislators, whom the ACLU hoped to pressure into passing laws to curtail the practice. The campaign was also directed at victims of racial profiling, urging them to share their stories with the ACLU and to lodge complaints. The more examples of racing profiling the ACLU could gather, the better the case that could be made that the problem was pervasive and required action.

Although the ACLU prided itself on being nonpartisan—willing to take on cases regardless of political party affiliation or ideology—the organization found vigorous opposition from Republicans and conservatives, who were not reluctant to characterize the ACLU as the epitome of evil. Right-wing media pundits were especially vituperative in their denunciation of the ACLU and the causes it championed. An example of this criticism came from commentator David Horowitz, who took specific exception to an ACLU print ad concerning the subject of racial profiling. Horowitz espoused the belief that racial profiling was, in fact, good police work that targeted the types of people most likely to commit crimes. After challenging the statistics in the ad as well as asking how many of the questionable traffic stops were conducted by Hispanic or black officers, Horowitz commented, ‘‘When facts like these make no difference, it is a sure sign that we are in the presence of an ideological force, disconnected from reality.’’ Horowitz was not alone in opposing the ACLU and in claiming that examples of abuse of police power were simply blown out of proportion by the ACLU and other forces of political correctness.

DeVito/Verdi, the advertising agency that produced the ACLU’s provocative print ads about racial profiling, was not new to controversy. Shortly after opening shop in 1991, it created an ad for a discount clothier called Daffy’s that showed a picture of a straitjacket accompanied by a headline that read: ‘‘If you’re paying over $100 for a dress shirt, may we suggest a jacket to go with it?’’ The ad was a hit with consumers and the advertising industry, but because a mental-health advocacy group took exception to the use of a straitjacket in the ad, it led to picketing at an advertising awards show.

To build its campaign to combat racial profiling, the ACLU conducted extensive research to determine the depth of the problem and to create documentation. It drew upon government reports, case studies from two dozen states, traffic-stop statistics obtained from ACLU lawsuits, and news stories. A report on the phenomenon of DWB was written, concluding that it was a nationwide problem. The report was released and disseminated shortly after the ACLU undertook a high-profile lawsuit in Oklahoma involving an egregious example of DWB, in which a decorated Army sergeant and his 12-year-old son were held in a grueling two-and-a-half-hour traffic stop. The ACLU was then able to drum up widespread media interest in DWB and to begin the process of educating the public on the subject. A website was also created to serve as a clearinghouse on racial profiling and a place where people could report instances of unwarranted traffic stops, thus providing the ACLU with information and possible cases for litigation.
The next step in the campaign against racial profiling involved consumer advertising. ACLU executive director Glasser told Lauro of the New York Times, ‘‘We have taken to advertising for the same reason people who market products have taken to advertising in a dramatic and splashy and visible way. We want to get the message into people’s consciousness without forcing them to have to read a law review article.’’ In December 1999 the ACLU took the unusual and attention-grabbing tactic of promoting its message by running three ads in the classified pages of major newspapers, including the New York Times. Each ad addressed a different example of injustice; one, which ran in the automotive ads, served as the opening salvo in the effort to fight racial profiling. The text read: ‘‘Car for Sale: 500 SL Luxury Sport Coupe. Its performance is unmatched on the highway. Unless you’re black and driving on some interstates. Then you could be pulled over and searched by state troopers for fitting a drug courier profile. These humiliating and illegal searches are violations of the Constitution and must be fought. Support the ACLU.’’ The ACLU also ran full-page print ads, which proved controversial in their own way. One involved the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed man killed in a hail of gunfire outside his apartment building in New York City. According to witnesses, he was simply returning home from dinner and made the mistake of reaching into his jacket when four plainclothes policemen ordered him to show his hands. They fired 41 shots, 19 of which struck Diallo. The incident had received international press coverage, and the ACLU referenced it in a new ad, which showed 41 bullet holes and the following text: ‘‘On February 4th, 1999, the NYPD gave Amadou Diallo the right to remain silent. And they did it without ever saying a word. Firing 41 bullets in 8 seconds, the police killed an unarmed, innocent man. Also wounded was the constitutional right of every American to due process of law. Help us defend your rights. Support the ACLU.’’ Several months later, in May 2000, the ACLU ran another controversial print ad, which appeared first in the New York Times and a day later in the New Yorker. The ad showed a picture of Martin Luther King, Jr., on the left side of the page and notorious killer Charles Manson on the right. The headline read: ‘‘The man on the left is 75 times more likely to be stopped by the police while driving than the man on the right.’’ The ACLU also took its campaign to the local level in September 2000, airing its first-ever paid television spots. They targeted Utah, whose senator Orrin Hatch, a Republican, was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In addition to ads sponsored by national organizations, local branches of the ACLU made their own contributions to the campaign. The Washington state chapter of the ACLU, for example, launched its own advertising effort to call attention to racial profiling.

The ACLU’s focus on racial profiling continued until the end of 2000, and then in the spring of 2001 the emphasis switched to the issue of gay civil rights laws. A few months later the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, took place, and the problem of DWB was pushed further aside, as the ACLU began addressing a host of civil-liberties questions that emerged with the launch of the so-called war on terror.
The ACLU was pleased with the results of its campaign. It claimed that many police departments had begun to require that officers record the race of every driver they stopped. In addition, more than 25 states introduced legislation connected to the DWB issue. The campaign was also able to achieve the goal of drawing attention to the issue, receiving a great deal of free media concerning racial profiling. The advertising played an important role in this regard. Although it upset a large number of people, it stood out and met its purpose. The advertising industry recognized the work as well. In 2001 the campaign won an Ad Age Best of Show Award (Magazines category).

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