Highlights from Benton’s Four Decades: The Campaigns for Kids
It started with a cold call from the Ad Council to the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). In 1996, the Ad Council, with more than $2 billion a year in donated media for public service advertising (PSA), decided to make a ten-year commitment to campaigns on behalf of children as the centerpiece of its work. To launch the initiative, the Ad Council was looking for a partner who could deliver a grassroots network and reinvent fulfillment for PSA campaigns in the digital age (replacing 800 phone numbers and brochures with multimedia websites to provide information and resources for action). CDF said, “That’s not what we do, but you should talk to the Coalition for America’s Children and Larry Kirkman at the Benton Foundation.”
Benton’s partnership with the Ad Council would garner more than $300 million in donated media and establish Benton as a pioneer in internet-based public service communications.
The Coalition for America’s Children: Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding
At the end of 1991, Benton became a co-founder of the Coalition for America’s Children with the American Academy of Pediatrics, National Association of Children’s Hospitals, and Child Welfare League of America. We were soon joined by the Children’s Defense Fund, National Education Association, and 100 plus organizations to launch the Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding Campaign.
The Coalition was a communications cooperative comprised of national child-serving and policy organizations, and eventually included state and local organizations, growing to over 450 members.
To get started, as convener of the steering committee, Benton hosted the first conference on public opinion research on children’s issues organized by the head of communication for the children’s hospitals association, Susan Bales. We convened leading political pollsters, affiliated with both Democrats and Republicans, to help the groups understand the polling around children’s issues.
The Coalition presented a united front, calling for a coherent children’s agenda around four issue areas: health, education, welfare, and income security.
Together, we invested in research, media relations, and production. Our research showed that Americans want to do more to address the problems facing children and families but feel overwhelmed and bombarded by negative messages in the media, and don’t know where to start. Benton organized a brainstorming session with Democratic and Republican strategists, which gave us the slogan Who’s for Kids and Who’s Just Kidding. The campaign challenged every political candidate from city council to President to publish their plans for children. Children’s issues became a major focus of the elections in 1992 and 1994 with newspapers across the country exposing candidates’ policy promises.
KidsCampaigns and the Ad Council: Reinventing public service advertising
By 1996, Benton was ready to be an effective partner for the Council’s signature campaign: we could imagine using the internet for public service advertising and we could produce it. From 1996-2001, I developed and managed the partnership with the Ad Council to help fulfill its commitment to create PSAs on children and families. It was an enormous commitment.
In the early negotiations, I insisted on two major principles: that the campaign would be about acting on behalf of kids – from volunteering to voting, with a focus on both individual behavior and social solutions – and that Benton’s work would be as fully resourced as the advertising production and distribution budget. The result was a three-year agreement between Benton and the Ad Council to create the website and the ads to support it.
The website, KidsCampaigns.org, was launched at the end of 1996 with a first wave of spots asking the question: Whose Side Are You On? The purpose of the advertising was to drive people to the website, which promised “One stop. No waiting. Right now. Act on behalf of kids. Here’s how.”
As publisher of KidsCampaigns, Benton leadership saw the value of nonprofit organizations both as trusted information providers and as information distributors to their networks. KidsCampaigns and Connect for Kids demonstrated a new form of journalism, providing context to the issues and a solutions-oriented approach that engaged, informed, and equipped our users. Editorial content was informed by communications research and the latest studies and reports on the status of children.
The pre-production campaign research revealed that “even though 80 percent of people said kids’ issues needed more attention, if you looked closely at their attitudes, you found that most people believed it is the responsibility of parents to deal with kids’ problems, whatever they are – health, education, safety or financial security.” The message of the advertising was framed by the finding that people were “extremely sympathetic to hard-working parents whom they perceive are doing everything they can to help their kids.” This first wave of advertising portrayed adults actively engaged in helping children succeed, making the case that it’s only fair that we do all we can to help those parents and children who are struggling hard to help themselves under circumstances that would wear down the rest of us.
Building on the successes of the Coalition for America’s Children Whose for Kids and Whose Just Kidding? campaign, child advocates also used materials from our website to brief candidates and educate voters during the 1996 and 1998 elections.
Benton’s role as innovator in the emerging digital landscape
Along with AT&T, the Kellogg, Packard, Atlantic, and Knight Foundations provided major grants to Benton for internet production and outreach to children’s organizations. Benton challenged the Ad Council’s traditional approaches to fulfillment and audience engagement. Prior to our collaboration, Ad Council campaigns were focused on promoting changes in individual behavior and on volunteering. But we saw that in an internet environment people were easily moving between personal interests, volunteering, movement building, and political action.
Before the internet, you were pressed to either mount a campaign to advocate for policy change or a campaign to recruit volunteers or ask for donations. In this new medium, we could see people migrating from the personal to the political. For example, someone would come to the site to get help on finding childcare. They would get connected to services, but at the same time they would find a checklist for an employee-friendly workplace. And, once their interest was sparked, they could find and join organizations advocating for early-childhood education funding, and for setting higher expectations than warehousing and safety.
Our research showed that users found the site inspirational and empowering. They were surprised at how much people like them could know and do. The curated site, mixing original reporting with annotated resources, was light, layered, and linked, a model for a knowledge network.
The Child Advocacy program gave Benton the standing to take on other ambitious web-based knowledge network projects that engaged partners, built platforms, and ensured content reached communities to maximize impact. The success of the KidsCampaigns and Connect for Kids websites set the stage for the U.S. center for OneWorld.org, a global network of non-governmental organizations providing news and information on development, and the Digital Divide Network, a resource to promote access to the benefits of the digital revolution.
By the end of the 1990s, with a staff of 30 and $5-6 million in annual external funding, Benton became recognized as a leader and promoter of innovation in the nonprofit sector, mapping public interest applications, and producing case studies that encouraged foundations to incorporate communications into capacity-building programs.
Larry Kirkman is a professor of Film and Media Arts and dean emeritus of the School of Communication at American University. He was executive director of the Benton Foundation from 1989 to 2001 and of the AFL-CIO Labor Institute of Public Affairs from 1982 to 1989. He was the first director for TV and Video at the American Film Institute where he produced the National Video Festival.
As a filmmaker-in-residence in the Investigative Reporting Workshop (IRW), he recently produced an interactive documentary, Nightmare Bacteria: Life Without Antibiotics. He is currently producing a documentary on science and public policy and is an executive producer of FREELANCERS with Bill Gentile, a documentary series on a new breed of international journalists.
His work in media for public knowledge and action includes television documentaries, social advertising campaigns, online journalism projects, and strategic communications and issue advocacy for nonprofit organizations. Learn more at larrykirkman.com.