Scope of Good Practice
Perhaps no public service campaign in the United States has ever had a more daunting call-to-action – provide a permanent, loving home for an older child currently in foster care. The Ad Council, The Collaboration to AdoptUSKids and Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal + Partners (KBSP) launched a campaign to inspire prospective adoptive parents to learn more about adoption – and, in particular, learn about children who are less likely to be adopted – older children, sibling groups or children with special needs. The campaign has helped inspire prospective parents to take action, and positively affected the lives of thousands of children.
The Problem Addressed by the Campaign
In the U.S., more than 500,000 children are in foster care and in need permanent, loving homes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Nearly 120,000 are unable to safely return to their parents. Older children (age 8+), African American and Hispanic children, sibling groups and children with special needs are less likely to be adopted. Each year, nearly 20,000 young people “age out” of the system without ever being adopted. They often have trouble transitioning to life on their own, and are at higher risk for poverty, substance abuse, homelessness and incarceration.
From the beginning, the challenges of this campaign were daunting. A secondary research review documented the large scope of need. Several existing studies demonstrated the many misperceptions about adoption. For example, prospective parents are often unaware of the financial and social support available to them, and many are misinformed about the adoption process. An extensive research program showed that prospective parents doubt their own readiness to adopt. A thorough review of the secondary literature, plus a series of expert interviews, helped the team understand the large scope of need, and provided insight into the adoption process. Researchers found that the qualification process is often perceived by prospective parents as daunting and bureaucratic. Moreover, many prospective parents are concerned about the “baggage” an older child may bring into their home.
The advertising needed to focus on reframing the notion of adoption. The agency had to acknowledge the self-doubts of prospective parents. The team conducted a series mini-focus groups in four cities. The set-up was unique: in a moderated discussion prospective parents were put in the same room as parents who had been through the process. Their rich and candid interactions allowed the team to hone in on what was most essential – in their own minds – to the decision to adopt. They asked prospective parents to keep weeklong diaries and picture books, which also helped provide an understanding of their mindset.
KBSP produced multiple creative executions for television, radio, print and online media. The ads highlighted the simple things parents do with their children – from watching TV together, to making a costume for a school play, to ironing clothes – all showcasing the notion that parents do not need to be perfect to be a perfect parent to a child in foster care. Some of the ads showed parents “messing up” in small but funny ways. Each ad demonstrated that more than anything else, these children simply wanted someone to be there for them every day, and a permanent place to call home. Fulfillment was developed for prospective parents – visiting adoptuskids.org or calling a toll-free number to learn more. The campaign was approved by the Ad Council’s Campaign Review Committee, a peer review group composed of top executives in the advertising industry. In addition, communications checks were held with focus groups of prospective parents in several markets. The focus groups demonstrated that prospective parents clearly understood and supported the campaign’s main message. A typical comment was: “Those are the things that are important to a child. Maybe I could do that!”
The campaign launched in July 2004, and has been active every year since. The Ad Council distributed television, radio, print and online ads to more than 33,000 media outlets nationwide. As with all Ad Council public service campaigns, media is not planned or bought; instead, the campaign relies on media outlets to donate time and space for the ads. The Ad Council’s Media team markets the campaign to media companies through several forms of outreach. In addition, the Ad Council provided media outreach training and support to AdoptUSKids’ local affiliates mobilizing the grassroots base to reach out to their local media outlets and create more localized fulfillment opportunities. The PSAs direct audiences to visit adoptuskids.org for current, accurate information about the foster care system and the adoption process. The Adoption campaign has received over $335 million in donated media, across all media platforms, over the past eight years.
A telephone fulfillment operation was already in effect prior to the campaign. In the 18 months prior to the launch of the campaign, a little over 4,000 calls were received. In the 18 months after the campaign launch, well over 14,000 calls were received, representing a 336 percent increase. The number of unique visitors to the website increased 42 percent, totaling 4.5 million visitors for the same period. Since the launch of the telephone fulfillment operation, over 200,000 inquiries have been made by phone. While website data has remained strong since the 2004 launch, January to June of 2011 saw a significant increase in web traffic due to an impressive collection of PSA assets and strong donated media. With over 1.2 million unique visitors and 32 million page views, people were more motivated to learn about adoption than during any other time in the campaign’s history. In 2012 alone there were 23 million website visits to adoptuskids.org. Over one-quarter of adults 21+ nationwide have indicated recognition of at least one Adoption broadcast PSA (TV or radio). Those with awareness of a broadcast PSA were significantly more likely to say that they “occasionally thought about” adopting a child from foster care (52 percent of those aware of the ads versus 36 percent of those not aware). Most importantly, the campaign has inspired 17,102 adoptions through AdoptUSKids, a remarkable achievement which does not even take into account adoptions through services outside of AdoptUSkids. Behind this number resides 17,102 remarkable stories.
Conclusions and Recommendations
In more than 70 years of public service advertising, perhaps no Ad Council campaign has asked for more. Indeed, recent Ad Council survey research confirms that this call-to-action is perceived as the most difficult among all campaigns on the Ad Council’s current docket. But the campaign’s results demonstrate that even when the “ask” is difficult, an effective public service campaign can inspire thousands to action. The key ingredients have been an innovative creative strategy, strong media support and effective marketing activities by the Ad Council and the sponsoring organizations.