The Greatest Show of Love: Seat Belt Safety before Vince and Larry 1961-1973

Prologue

The influence of the Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry is hard to overstate. Twenty-five years after they rode off into the sunset, Vince and Larry still are celebrated for how many lives they, and their associated Ad Council campaign, saved. The importance of this campaign makes it critical to make notice of the safety PSAs that came before Vince and Larry. Long before they crashed into our living rooms for the first time, the Ad Council strove to protect Americans from accident misinformation. While not as successful as campaigns to come, the 1960s Safety Belt campaign served as an incubator for future ideas and practices. The earlier campaign’s shortcomings and setbacks laid the groundwork for the later transformative successes.

 

Lobbying the Lobbyists

Taking inspiration from the nascent Jet Age, Oldsmobile and by extension General Motors marketed their vehicles as fast, aerodynamic and powerful. They feared that any mention of the dangers of driving would severely impact their bottom line.

Originally invented for aviation pursuits, the first factory seat restraint option in American automobiles was offered by Nash in 1949. Buyers did not enjoy using these early seat belts. Customers believed they were unsafe and uncomfortable.

Many consumers believed it was better to be ejected from a vehicle than remain in the passenger cabin. Studies done by Nash and Ford showed customers removed seat belts from vehicles in droves. As a result, other manufacturers, namely General Motors, considered the endeavor to be a waste of time and money.

By contrast, Robert McNamara and the Ford Motor Company made safety a key selling point in 1956. 14% of Ford buyers opted for the “Lifeguard” safety package that year. For reasons that are still debated today, the Lifeguard package would be scrapped the following year. From the Collections of The Henry Ford

Even at the Ad Council, there were concern that a seat belt campaign would prove to be as unpopular as seat belts themselves.  As Leo Burnett, one of the directors of the Ad Council, stated in retrospect, “There were reservations as to how the [Ad] Council should proceed in this matter.” Since 1943, the Ad Council and several partner organizations had sponsored a campaign dedicated to accident prevention. In fact, sole purpose was to prevent accidents from occurring, not how to minimize injuries in the event of an accident (for more information on the early history of the campaign, please click this link). not merely want to add seat belts to the existing campaign–it wanted to devote all focus to seat belts.

 

1962 Seat Belt Safety Ad

This requested shift in focus raised several questions for the members of the Campaign Review Committee. While new car buyers would be able to take advantage of the hardware in their cars, what about those with pre-1962 model year vehicles? Would they be able to safely and economically retrofit seat belts in their vehicles? Otherwise, how much of an impact would a seat belt campaign have? Did it make sense to dedicate all of the Ad Council’s resources to a project with a limited target audience at the expense of the masses? Additionally, committee members were wary of the dissipation of gains made by the Highway Safety campaign’s emphasis on the enforcement of traffic laws. The Ad Council respected the desires of their partner, NSC, but did not believe that the time was right for such a change in the safety campaign’s messages.

On April 12, 1961, then-Executive Vice President of the National Safety Council General George C. Stewart spoke to the Ad Council Campaigns Review subcommittee to encourage this shift. He expressed appreciation for the Ad Council’s service and dedication to automotive safety. He stated NSC’s long-standing recommendation of the usage of seat belts and how their persistence was starting to bear fruit with automakers. Movers and shakers in Detroit had acquiesced to National Safety Council’s desires. Beginning with 1962 model year vehicles, all cars manufactured in America would come standard with seat belt latching points. That work would go to waste, however, if people were not aware of the benefits of seat belts. General Stewart, and by extension the National Safety Council, strongly believed in the power of advertising to create the necessary awareness. In the eyes of the National Safety Council, this was not something that could wait. Seat belts demanded the Traffic Safety campaign’s full attention. He ended his stump speech by saying that the National Safety Council would attempt to work out another theme with the Ad Council if seat belt safety was not implemented as they wished.

 

Once General Stewart ended his talk, members of the Campaign Review Committee began to express their concerns about such a quick overhaul of a long-standing campaign. After further discussion, the committee unanimously passed the following motion: “while the sole strategy of had been to prevent accidents, the emphasis should be broadened to save[ing] lives altogether. The Ad Council would continue to preach safe and legal driving habits while also encouraging seat belt usage to reduce the harm inflicted in the event of an accident.”

 

That being said, the committee still was concerned about potentially upsetting automotive manufacturing sponsors if the Ad Council acted without forewarning. The Board of Directors desired proof that such a move would not catch automakers off guard. The Council relied on the support of corporate partners to donate space and funds for programming; they were not in a position to directly influence their benefactors. With enough data and advertising, however, they could nudge those who did hold sway over automakers to act—the customer. Convince the public that seat belts were necessary, and hesitant automakers would be forced to offer them. If seat belts were readily available, reasonably priced, and relatively easy to install, what excuse would remain to automakers for not installing them? The NSC produced a veritable trove of studies, graphs, and (critically) advertising material for this revamp in time for the monthly Board of Directors which approved the proposal and promptly scheduled a joint press conference.

 

Advertisement for the revamped Stop Accidents/ Safety Belt Campaign, 1961

On June 27th, 1961, the Ad Council, National Safety Council, and the American Medical Association, alongside news outlets, gathered to announce a revamping of the Stop Accidents campaign. Ad Council President Theodore Repplier explained the necessity of this change with the following statement:

“When we started the Stop Accidents Campaign in 1945, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 11.3. The rate last year was 5.3. While the National Safety Council has been most generous in citing the value of this campaign in helping to bring about this reduction, they are not satisfied and we are not satisfied as long as there are 38,000 people killed and almost one and a half million seriously injured in on our streets and highways.”

Although the Ad Council had done much to encourage safe driving habits while discouraging risky behaviors, traffic incidents are a fact of life as long as the human element remains a factor. As cars became bigger, faster and heavier, more needed to be done to protect passengers from their chrome-plated missiles. A driver could do everything right from taking precautions during inclement weather and only driving when in a condition to do so safely, but still be mangled by another driver’s mistakes.

Bumps in the Road

Divisions spread within the Safety Taskforce. The campaign languished in limbo, as some members did not want to dedicate Ad Council resources to a campaign that did not have the endorsement of its sponsoring agency. These members proposed a one to two year “holiday” on the campaign, while others, recognizing the importance of the campaign, pushed for its renewal. Even Howard Pyle expressed reservations on the continuance of the partnership after the campaign’s December 31st, 1964 expiration date.

Less than two months from deadline, Pyle wrote a letter expressing a change of heart. The National Safety Council definitely requested continuance if the campaign. The Ad Council agreed to extend the campaign for one year, contingent upon two conditions: that the NSC and Ad Council mutually agree upon a copy theme that the campaign group feels would be effective and the signing of an agreement upon communication policies and procedures to prevent tensions from rising in the future.

Seat Belt Safety Magazine Ads, 1968

With these kinks ironed out the Seat Belt campaign soldiered on, outliving other campaigns, presidential administrations and even members of the Council’s Board of Directors. Finally, thirty years after its inception, the Stop Accidents/Seat Belt Safety campaign died a quiet death in 1974. With the end of the campaign, seat belt awareness and promotion would languish for an entire decade. By the time seat belt safety was resurrected in the 1980s, any noticeable gains made by the Council’s push had been eliminated. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 15 percent of Americans reported using seat belts while driving. For perspective, 1 out of every 7 ford buyers paid for the privilege of having seat belts in 1956.

 

Where Did It Go Wrong?

In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.” The first iteration of the seat belt safety campaign died as a result of a flaw present at its creation–not enough people responsible for the campaign believed in it. The Council has always been at its most influential when selling ideas that they fully supported. Seat Belt Safety was born under a haze of apprehension and doubt. For once, it was the Council that needed to be sold on an idea.

1984 Safety Belt Campaign Proposal Fact Sheet, Ad Council Campaign Review Committee

They worried about losing hard-fought ground in automotive safety to promote a new and unpopular device. The seat belts in cars at the time were not the modern three-point harness with pretensioners, but lap belts akin to those used in school buses today. While these seat belts did save lives, people found these early models to be clunky and uncomfortable. It would have been an uphill battle with the full support of the Ad Council. Without it, making the campaign a success would have been Mission: Impossible.

 

By the time the National Safety Council pulled its funding from the campaign, its strongest supporters at the Council were no longer there to promote it. Leo Burnett passed away in 1971. H.T. Rowe died three months after the campaign was canceled. Theodore Repplier retired from the Council in 1966 and was in declining health. The Council searched for new sponsors for the campaign but came up empty-handed. Overloaded with campaign requests and underfunded to support it alone, the Ad Council had no other choice. Stop Accidents had effectively been orphaned, with no one stepping up to adopt the poor child.

The robustness of the NSC’s proposal also might have been its undoing. The campaign was the National Safety Council’s brainchild with the Ad Council taking a back seat. As then-President of the Ad Council Theodore Repplier said, it was in “full support” of the messaging produced by the NSC. The shift in emphasis to seat belt safety also marked an unofficial transfer of power from H.T. Rowe to Howard Pyle, the President of the NSC. Traditionally, it was the volunteer coordinator who would issue a letter with each press kit, outlining the goals of that season’s advertisement. After 1963, Governor Pyle would be the one to address the ad representatives. While Rowe was an Ad Man who cut his teeth at IBM, Pyle’s background was in politics and broadcasting. Pyle preferred facts and figures to hokey messaging, hoping that logic would be enough. It was not. The campaigns that stick with us long after they end have soul. They make us laugh; they make us cry. We connected with Vince and Larry on a level that could never be reached with raw data. No man understood the value of the “soft sell” better than Leo Burnett. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it was the agency he founded that showed us “you could learn a lot from a dummy.”

 

Steady Does It: American Sentiments Personified by Uncle Sam 1942-1952

Uncle Sam. The personification of the United States Government. The paternalistic captain at the helm of the Republic, through tempests and torrents. A steadying constant since his inception during the War of 1812, right? Well, not exactly. The origin tale of Uncle Sam is one of obscurity, confusion, and mystery. We do not know the exact date of birth of Uncle Sam, nor do we know where his iconography begins and the older character, Brother Jonathan, ends. What we do know is by the 20th century, Uncle Sam was securely in position as a figure who called people to action.

Like Uncle Sam, the Ad Council’s birth is fuzzier than the reasons for their existence. The Council’s founders sought to unite the American people for common causes. They solved and spoke to problems that the federal government could not tackle alone. Constant, yet always evolving, the Ad Council and Uncle Sam reflect the sentiments, hopes, fears, and desires of their times. Is Uncle Sam standing resplendent and regal, as always? Is he dressing down to better relate to the working class? What about his expression? Is he confident? Angry? Determined? Depressed? If pictures are truly worth a thousand words each, then choices by the illustrators hired by the Ad Council can reveal much about the State of the Union.

The earliest usage of Uncle Sam by the Ad Council dates back to 1943. Created in conjunction with the Office of War Information (OWI) and the Council, the Security of War Information campaign utilized a hushing Uncle Sam insignia. The Security of War Information campaign implored citizens to be careful about what information they shared, regardless of how much faith they had in the receiver of said information. Uncle Sam’s disapproving librarian glare cut to the heart of the issue: your silence was golden. No matter the importance of what you were sharing, it was ruining the lives of other users of “library” materials. People took to this metaphor like flies to honey. Companies were encouraged by the OWI and Ad Council to spread this code of silence through their advertising.

While the campaign was popular, an official propaganda office was not. Created by Executive Order 9182 in the summer of 1942, the OWI operated as a governmental counterpart to the Council. Both worked to present a unified message to the American people. Whereas the Ad Council was a non-profit entity outside of the purview of the government, the OWI was explicitly an American propaganda agency. President Roosevelt, like the founders of the Ad Council, recognized the importance of an organized delivery of information. As the OWI and the Council celebrated their first success, people within and without the government spoke out against the OWI’s existence. The department was not free from controversy, however. Those who did not oppose a propaganda office in concept felt that previous attempts were heavily flawed and unsuccessful. The press worried about the influence the government could wield over the media. Members of Congress even feared that the Office could eventually resemble the Nazi propaganda apparatus created by Joseph Goebbels. The agency’s operations and influence were quickly curtailed. Despite this, the OWI and the Council continued their cooperation throughout the war.

Another product of this union was a series of victory garden advertisements produced from 1944 to the end of the war. Uncle Sam features prominently in most ads, meant to take up either half or a whole broadsheet newspaper page. For Once, Uncle Sam is not dressed to the nines. He has his sleeves rolled up. His brow is furrowed, with visible beads of sweat. In others, he brandishes garden implements as if they are weapons of war, daring the viewer to take up the fight. As a character, Uncle Sam can personify sentiments that the federal government as an abstract entity cannot. By showing Uncle Sam in more practical attire, the artist puts the viewer and the government on equal footing, a “we’re all in this together, your fight is our fight” kind of thing. Images of Uncle Sam and gardening tools as weapons attempt to link groups with unequal responsibilities. The Council wanted to make victory gardeners feel more connected to the war front. All Americans had to make sacrifices to best the Axis Powers. Even if you cannot pick up a rifle, the Council and OWI wanted to acknowledge your labor and show thanks.

To the victor, the spoils of war, the saying goes. The United States and its allies achieved total victory over the Axis powers. While the world celebrated the end of the conflict, the Ad Council and the Federal Government looked wearily ahead to the struggles to come. Both the Ad Council and the State Department agreed that a new war was on the horizon, albeit one fought within the hearts and minds of people. To win the Cold War, the US government needed to counteract Soviet propaganda at home and abroad.

One of these attempts was a series of pamphlets titled The Miracle of America. Here, Uncle Sam lectures the reader on the basics of the economy. The Ad Council (through the guise of Uncle Sam) states that America possessed a bounty of natural resources and an innovative spirit capable of taking full advantage of its situation. Uncle Sam admitted that American Capitalism is far from perfect. In the same breath, he states that our rise as a global power and the prosperity of our Nation would not be possible without it. The text juxtaposes two different concepts of what Uncle Sam represents. Firstly, we have Uncle Sam, the wise paternalistic leader of the Nation. While still friendly, there is a power imbalance inherent in the relationship between Uncle Sam and his “nieces and nephews.” He is the adult in the room. He is the authority on all subjects. All Americans must mind their Uncle Sam or suffer the consequences.

On the other, we have the proletariat Uncle Sam, the laborer hard at work around his “homestead.” This Uncle Sam does not awe you into submission with pomp and circumstance. He is an honest man, a simple one at that. This Uncle Sam is a paragon of American duty and sacrifice in ways that top hat and tails Uncle Sam could never approach. If formal Uncle Sam would host a cocktail party and discuss foreign relations, informal Uncle Sam would share a six-pack and discuss crop yields and issues at home. In short, one is the Federal Government looking outward. The other is when America puts itself under the microscope.

While people were already concerned about the spread of communism, this fear did not make its presence known in Ad Council materials until the beginning of the Korean War. Far from the first flare-up in US-Soviet relations, this was the first instance of armed conflict since World War II. As an avatar for the federal government, a stern but prepared Uncle Sam gears up for a fight he did not ask for but is more than happy to oblige. In this series of images, Uncle Sam returns to his formal attire. The humble Uncle Sam has been retired for one who means business. This Uncle Sam furrows his brows. He is disappointed to see peace be broken so soon after the cataclysm of the Second World War but is more than prepared to defend his vision for the world. The Uncle Sam we saw in earlier editions of The Miracle of America (and to a lesser extent the victory garden material) wanted to peacefully rebuild a better world and focus on getting his house in order. This Uncle Sam will flex his muscles and restore peace, even if he has to break a few bones in the process.

While this concludes one chapter in the history of the Ad Council, there are countless stories waiting to be told about the Council’s 80 years of public service advertising.  Advertising provides a glimpse into the mindsets and culture of those who create it. If you are interested in discovering other hidden stories. I invite you to contact us at the University Archives by email or stop by for a visit.

John C. Houbolt: The Man Behind the Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous

On May 25th, 1961, President John F. Kennedy called for the nation to “commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

On July 20, 1969, Apollo 11 successfully landed on the surface of the moon, and 6 hours after landing Commander Neil Armstrong became the first person to step onto the lunar surface. This July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of that historic event, and in honor of that day, a University of Illinois Archives exhibit calls attention to alumnus John C. Houbolt (B.S. 1940, M.S. 1942). For without his work and advocacy, the brave Apollo 11 astronauts would never have made it home.

Houbolt was a NASA aerospace engineer from Joliet, Illinois who developed the unpopular idea that to land a man on the moon and return safely, the only way was to use his concept of Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous (LOR) and a lunar landing module. At the time the prevailing ideas for landing on the moon were Direct Descent or Earth-Orbit-Rendezvous. Neither of which would be cost-effective or feasible. The Lunar-Orbit-Rendezvous eventually became the ideal and safest way to accomplish a moon landing.

There are always scientists and engineers who may be responsible for the success of historic events but who remain anonymous to popular history. Without Houbolt’s idea and persistence, this event would not have been possible. So that he is not just a footnote in history our exhibit opens a window into the work and life of John C. Houbolt.

 

For an informative account of Houbolt’s contribution visit NPR’s 1A interview with Todd Zwillich, “Fly Me To The Moon: Apollo 11 and The Unsung Hero Who Made It Happen”

Historicizing Dance at Illinois: Milestones and Contributions

The University of Illinois has made many contributions to different fields of knowledge throughout its history; an important aspect of this history is Illinois’ contributions to modern dance.

Although dance performances were taking place at Illinois as early as 1898 through, for example, the May Fête celebrations, the early 20th century saw dance at Illinois evolve from a recreational activity such as the May Fête to high-end artistic and academic education.

By 1920, the Department of Physical Education for Women offered academic credits for two dance classes: “interpretative” and “natural” dance (see the Dance Department’s history page). However, it was Professor Margaret Erlanger whose work lead to the re-interpretation of dance in the University as a form of art and an academic subject, beyond its recreational and athletic dimensions. Erlanger came to Illinois in 1948 to the Department of Physical Ed for Women, and that same year began to work intensively to push forward the creation of a Dance Division that would offer a B.A. in Dance. By then, only ten schools across the country were offering a degree in Dance, as Erlanger notes in a May 2nd 1949 letter to the director of Physical Education (letter linked through the image below, page 4). Erlanger, one of the first graduates from the pioneer program at the University of Wisconsin led by Margaret H’Doubler, addressed University administrators with strong arguments about the emergence of Modern Dance, the importance of implementing an academic program at Illinois, and the increasing demand of dance education in the country.

In 1948, she wrote in a letter to the director of the Physical Education Department:

“…Modern dance philosophy holds that every individual born has some creative ability and that it is one of the roles of education to see that all children be guided in the development of creative expression in movement as well as in tone, color, or words. The purpose is the growth of the individual emotionally and mentally, as well as physically. Modern dance is in education not for the sake of dance, but for the sake of people… This philosophy fits perfectly into the ideals of our society” 

University Archives, Series 12/13/20, box 3
Margaret Erlanger Papers

Through intense work in developing proposals for a dance curriculum, gaining support from colleagues, and convincing administrators of the value of the field, in 1949–only one year after Erlanger’s arrival on campus–she created a curriculum for a specialization in dance within the B.S. degree program for Physical Education. From there, the path of academic education in dance at Illinois began, creating a M.A. in 1959 and a B.A. in 1962.

The vibrant environment of the Dance Division drew such dance legends as José Limon and Agnes de Mille, who performed on campus as early as 1953 and 1954 respectively. The Dance Division also invited the internationally influential artist Ann Harplin to direct a piece with the Division’s group Orchesis (1957).

Notably, Illinois became the first school with a Dancer-in-residence permanent position in 1959. The first dancer holding this position was no other than Merce Cunningham. Cunningham taught on campus, created pieces for dance students and for himself, which were showed on campus in a concert at the end of his residency. Cunningham and company returned to Illinois in several occasions to teach and show work, which included several collaborations with  contemporary music legend John Cage. A highlight of these collaborations was the 1967 concert for the University festival “Matrix for the Arts,” which was part of the University’s Centennial celebration. For that concert, Cage staged a “Happening” at the Stock Pavilion, at a time when “Happenings” as contemporary art forms had appeared only about ten years before. During the 1950s and 60s several other dance legends visited Illinois as dancers in residence, including Katherine Litz, Paul Taylor, Anna Sokolow, Alwin Nikolais, Steve Paxton and Katharine Dunham.

 

Samples from material from Margaret Eralnger Papers, Series 12/13/20

 

The opportunity of having professional companies teaching and creating work on campus, made of Dance at Illinois a pioneer in dance education, and made of that Department a unique environment for artistic experimentation.  It attracted such world-renown dancers as Beverly Blossom and Joan Skinner, who eventually became dance faculty members. Skinner obtained her Master’s from Illinois (1964) and while teaching at the University, developed the “Skinner release technique” which transformed the modern dance education and put somatic education at the forefront of dance education. This environment made of Illinois a center for the evolution of modern and contemporary dance, as well as the “somatic meca” that it is today as noted Nancy Wozny in 2012 for “Dance Magazine.” Three dancers have received an Honorary Doctorate Degree from the University: Merce Cunningham, Alwin Nikolais, and Katherine Durham.

Program of Joann Skinner’s 1963 dance concert for obtaining her MA fro Illinois.
M. Erlanger Papers (12/13/20), Scrapbook 14.

Through the movement initiated by Professor Erlanger, which was strengthened by the dancers, choreographers, and educators that became part of this process, Dance at Illinois made dance a language of research, innovation, and artistic excellence.

This post is a complement of the exhibit “Dance at Illinois. Milestones and contributions” installed at the Marshall Gallery from the Main Library between May 2nd and through June 30th, 2017. For more information about this topic, you can visit the University Archives, and browse the series: Margaret Erlanger’s papers (Series 12/13/20)Dance Department Records (12/13/1)Dance Programs (RS 12/13/805), and Archives Exhibits File (Series 35/3/54).

Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory: A Cybernetics Odyssey

Heinz von Foerster exits the Biological Computer Laboratory office in the Electrical Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, found in record series 39/1/11, box 94.
Heinz von Foerster exits the Biological Computer Laboratory office in the Electrical Engineering Research Laboratory at the University of Illinois, found in record series 39/1/11, box 94.

What do the study of the computational principles in living organisms, the end of the world, and a counterculture student-produced guide to the university all have in common? These subjects are all documented in the personal papers of electrical engineering professor Heinz von Foerster (1911-2002), whose work and laboratory at the University of Illinois transformed a generation of scientists, engineers, and humanists and the interdisciplinary approaches they employed to answer questions about behavior. “Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory: A Cybernetics Odyssey”–a new exhibit in the University Archives, room 146–contains selections from the Heinz von Foerster Papers, the Biological Computer Laboratory Publications, and the Biological Computer Laboratory Contract and Conference File, which highlight the genesis and evolution of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) as well as von Foerster’s cybernetics research and role as an educator. Continue reading “Heinz von Foerster and the Biological Computer Laboratory: A Cybernetics Odyssey”