The Ad Council teams up with John Legend to spark anti-racist action.
The non-profit Ad Council and pro bono creative agency R/GA are building on their Emmy Award-winning, anti-bias Love Has No Labels campaign—as well as their spring project with Alicia Keys honoring the pandemic’s essential workers—to rock the most essential concept of all: Justice.
As the political climate heats up amidst a series of police killings of unarmed, even sleeping, Black Americans, the two groups are joining forces with entertainment company WAVE and acclaimed singer and philanthropist John Legend to spur anti-racist action.
The Ad Council’s “Fight for Freedom” public service announcement—running on YouTube and on numerous other channels courtesy of donated media buys—also aired during John Legend’s June 25 One Way concert, where his virtual avatar performed live for the first time.
The partnership with Legend is a natural outgrowth of shared passions for social justice. The 11-time Grammy award winner created Let’s Free America to reform the criminal justice system. (Legend has spoken of his mother who was incarcerated for drug addiction when “she needed help.”)
“America. Land of the free. It’s at the core of who we are,” narrates Black actor and singer Carla Renata in the Fight for Freedom PSA. “The freedom to live without fear. To drive through all 50 states. To sleep safely in our own beds, the freedom to jog where we please, to watch birds in the park, to wear a hoodie. The freedom to breathe.”
All lives can’t matter, until Black lives matter.
During the one-minute spot, “Oh, Freedom,” a song that social justice activists sang during the 1965 voting rights march, starts to play. Carl Benkert, a Black architectural interior designer from Detroit, recorded it, along with many other songs, for his “Freedom Songs” album commemorating the historic march.
“We wanted to make sure every aspect of the spot had meaning behind it and told a story,” R/GA PR Manager Shanice Graves says. “So many of the protest anthems being sung at marches today have their roots in the protests and marches of the ‘60s. Once we got to digging, we discovered these recordings, these voices, this energy, was all documented…and these voices needed to be heard again.”
Mignon Marshall, a Realtor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and member of the board of the South Florida chapter of UNCF, formerly known as the United Negro College Fund, says that although she likes the message the Ad Council is trying to convey, “Black people do not need to understand racism or implicit bias. White people do.”
Marshall was heartened to see that the Ad Council linked to the UNCF website, and hopes that the two organizations will create internships for Black students in partnership with historically black colleges and universities.
Indeed, the non-profits have partnered together for decades. Their “The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign of the 1970s has evolved into “The Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste but a Wonderful Thing to Invest In,” with pro bono help from creative agency VMLY&R.
“It is very concerning to me that [the Ad Council’s leadership team] does not have even one Black person on it,” Marshall says. “This is a real problem for me…Change is going to come with corporate America hiring and mentoring Black people in leadership positions at fair and equitable wages.”
Of the 17 women and three men on the council’s leadership and SVP teams, all are white except for two Asian-American women. On the other hand, the non-profit’s Advisory Committee does have a diverse membership; some of the committee’s social justice advocates consulted on the Fight for Freedom project.
“We know we have work to do,” Ad Council SVP of Marketing and Communications Ellyn Fisher says. “We are committed to having diverse representations at all levels, especially senior leadership. It’s a priority.”
For its part, R/GA made headlines last week as part of an Ad Age investigative piece on racism in the ad industry including a young Black female employee who said she wasn’t paid fairly or treated equally at the agency. According to an R/GA spokesperson, “This is just the beginning of the industry’s long overdue reckoning with systemic racism, and we recognize our complicity in perpetuating this system.”
With such a backdrop, it’s critical to credit the Black people who steered the project while also questioning if the content is dramatic enough to effect change.
Two Black men—R/GA strategists Aaron Harridge and Brandon Lee Heard—led the film’s creative ideation. Black photographers including Adreinne Waheed and Spry Lee Scott, contributed photos of recent protests; Adrian Delude of Company 3 was the film’s lead colorist; and Tré Seals, founder of Vocal Type Co., created the typography.
“For brands, companies, and people that choose to stand behind our message, know that activating allyship is a journey,” says Heard, recognized as a 2018 young leader by Adcolor, an organization cultivating diversity in creative industries. “This is just the beginning of what it looks like to turn privilege into power and to employ that power in an effort to advance the culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion.”
The Ad Council and R/GA used rapid-testing platform Alpha to test their creative idea before hitting the market. The survey of more than 350 U.S. adults included a sample of Black adults and a sample of all adults 18 years and older.
“Even when we’re on a very short timeline, it’s important for us to understand how our messaging will resonate among audiences with varying perspectives and backgrounds before we finalize and launch the creative,” Graves says. “The rapid testing revealed that a majority of respondents, across race/ethnicity, had a positive reaction to the ad and agreed that the message was important right now.”
Andrew Martineau, a former art director at JWT Boom in Boca Raton, says the content struck the right balance.
“It’s an incredible message that I think hit the mark perfectly,” says Martineau, who immigrated to South Florida from Trinidad in 1995. The serial entrepreneur owns the marketing and product development firm UniteUs Group; as the co-founder of Art Fort Lauderdale, he is considered one of the region’s foremost arts visionaries.
“[The film] subtly, but powerfully, highlights the everyday scenarios that white people enjoy, take for granted, and the recent situations (George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, etc.) that illustrate it,” says Martineau.
However, Gary Perodin, MPH, a Black healthcare executive in Westbury, N.Y., says the film lacks the shock value critical to changing public opinion.
“The inequalities that Black Americans experience are depicted in the video as somber and unfortunate isolated experiences rather than the fear, hurt and pain that many Black Americans feel deeply each and every day,” he says.
He referenced an NBC video of a Milwaukee man in anguish over the death of Sylville Smith—shot and killed by a black police officer during a 2016 foot chase—as an example of content that might adjust white people’s opinions on the Black American experience.
“[That video] was more impactful as it showed how non-Blacks view the actions taken by Blacks after crimes are committed against them out of context, but then shows the pain, hurt, intelligence and provides a call to action,” Perodin writes. “To be as composed and thought provoking as he was during that tragic time shows the courage Black people muster up every day to continue on with their lives.”
Poet, screenplay writer and social justice activist Darius V. Daughtry had his first encounter with Fort Lauderdale police when he was five years old. He was hanging out with teenagers in a vacant house two doors down from this grandmother’s home. The neighbors had just moved away, and the kids went there to play music.
The cops came and rounded them up; the handcuffs practically fell off Daughtry’s tiny wrists; he was called the “N” word. (Read the author’s profile of Daughtry in Lifestyle magazine here.)
“While we are in a time when corporations and organizations are all producing content and statements to show which side of history they stand [on], many of the statements seem shallow and manicured,” says Daughtry, executive director of Fort Lauderdale’s Art Prevails Project and author of And the Walls Came Tumbling: Unapologetically Speaking Truth to Power.
“I think this is a pretty strong statement from the Ad Council,” he says. “To challenge the ‘universal’ idea of freedom by evoking those simplicities often not afforded to Black Americans is a strong step. I do find it interesting and disappointing that there is no direct language regarding police and the murders of Black people at the hands of police.”
Karla D. Kennedy, Ph.D., associate chair of Florida International University’s Journalism + Media Department, describes the film as “a powerful 60 seconds” that made her angry, sad, and fearful for her brother. She is the only Black professor in the department.
“It is comprehensive, tells a story, and leaves the viewer with important questions to ask as they navigate the treacherous realm and reality of racism in America,” Kennedy says. “It challenges viewers to take a critical look at their own views by exposing them to factual information, while striking an emotional chord. It forces them to take the blinders off and deal with their own racial biases.”
Like the advertising industry, the fields of academia and journalism need to diversify to effect racial parity, Kennedy says.
“As the Association of Newspaper Editors continues to monitor and set goals for diversifying the faces and voices in mainstream media to reflect our communities, it is the obligation of J-schools across America to purposefully recruit and retain those voices in our classrooms,” she says. “We do that work by maintaining a diverse faculty, designing and implementing inclusive curriculums, and by listening and acting in the best interest of all marginalized populations.”