Jack Keil, the advertising executive who created and gave voice to McGruff, the cartoon hound who exhorts Americans to “take a bite out of crime,” died on August 25th at his home in Westminister West, Vermont. He was 94 years old. (The New York Times Obituaries Sunday, September 10, 2017.
Public service announcements are, by their nature, boring. Being told to be careful around strangers, or not to feed the bears in the woods, or to take care not to start a forest fire, is all perfectly sound advice. But it’s not a way to keep top of mind. Moreover, most people don’t like being told what to do; it comes across more like nagging than providing a friendly reminder.
Clever marketers, guys like Mr. Keil, understood this problem and devised a clever way around it. Mr. Keil’s basic insight was recognizing that the most memorable way to present information – any information – is through a story. Taking this idea one step further, Mr. Keil realized that creating an unforgettable character who would act as the spokesman for the cause – in this case, relaying tips and advise on how to reduce neighborhood crime – would give the message the needed “sticky-ness.” And, thus, McGruff, a tall, tough, trench coat wearing dog detective was born. “He wasn’t vicious, not tremendously smart, maybe, but he was no wimp either, “said Mr.Keil about his canine character. “He was a father figure, or possibly an uncle figure.”
Giving the message a mascot and a catchphrase was a stroke of marketing genius. Instead of brushing off warnings to lock your doors and advice to start a neighborhood watch, people would see McGruff the crime-fighting dog, and they would immediately remember it was incumbent upon them to “take a bite out of crime.” In fact, McGruff is so iconic that most people forget (or simply don’t know) that there is an actual nonprofit organization he represents called the National Crime Prevention Council. According to three studies conducted by market research firms on behalf of the NCPC, 8 out of 10 children recognize the crime-fighting dog as do 9 out of 10 adults. And remember, the mascot was created almost 30 years ago. That’s stickiness!!
The point is that associating a cause or message with a loveable mascot endows that cause or message with a provocative narrative element that’s impossible to ignore. As a result, the exhortations to pay attention to something or take action for someone are softened in just the right way for an org’s target audience to process, absorb, and respond to.
Jack Keil understood better than most that the better a story-like element can be woven into an organization’s pitch, the more powerful it’s “ask” would be. He was truly a pioneer or message marketing, and he will no doubt continue to live on through his most beloved creation: McGruff the Crime-Fighting Dog.