“He’s not going anywhere anytime soon,” said Ann Harkins, president and chief executive of the National Crime Prevention Council, which holds the rights to McGruff’s leash. She added, “He’s a rock star.”
Indeed, few commercial mascots can claim to outpace McGruff in endurance and permeation. (McGruff, like Smokey Bear, was created for the Ad Council. Mr. Keil had said the popularity of Smokey, introduced in 1944, had persuaded him to pitch an anthropomorphic animal character to his firm, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample.)
McGruff’s introduction, in 1980, coincided with a rising national crime rate, and heightened concern about how to stanch it. The canine detective offered easy advice, such as locking doors, leaving a porch light on at night or having a neighbor pick up your mail when you are away — tactics that were quickly adopted into the social consciousness. The popularity of Neighborhood Watch programs is often credited to McGruff, who inspired people to be vigilant within their communities.
“If you did a focus group” on crime prevention in 1978, Ms. Harkins said, “the response is kind of hands up, I can’t do anything, that’s law enforcement’s job.”
But people did not necessarily want more police officers. To research the campaign, Mr. Keil, who also voiced most of the spots, rode along with police and studied polling numbers to better understand the public’s concern. He told the Ad Council in 2004 that his strategy was to motivate people to work against crime not with giant law enforcement sweeps, but with small steps they could take on their own.
“We are trying to get them to do little things,” Mr. Keil said. “Take little nips. Bites.”
After the first spot aired, more than 300,000 people requested copies of the “Got a Minute? You Could Stop a Crime” booklet. The driving force of those initial campaigns was not the character as much as it was the slogan, said Wanda Pogue, chief strategy officer for Saatchi & Saatchi, which acquired Dancer Fitzgerald Sample in 1986.
“There was something kind of empowering about him,” Ms. Pogue said. “‘Take a bite out of crime’ makes you feel like you can do this. We together can do this.”
The character’s personification helped, too. That subtle connection to Columbo was key to the cartoon’s crossover appeal to adults, said Wendy Melillo, who wrote the book “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America” in 2013.
“Successful advertising campaigns always have somebody’s finger on the pulse of popular culture,” said Ms. Melillo, an associate professor of communication at American University. “And at the time, Peter Falk’s Columbo was a very important piece of Americana.”
In fact, Ms. Melillo said, Mr. Keil was so swept up in the idea of mirroring Columbo that his original sketches included a cigar dangling from McGruff’s lips. Not surprisingly, the Ad Council nixed it.
“You can’t have smoking in an Ad Council P.S.A.,” she said.
McGruff’s first print ad in 1980 began: “You don’t know me …yet. But you will.” It was remarkably prescient. Since then, the campaign has received more than $1.4 billion worth of free media, spawning songs; spinoffs; a cartoon nephew, Scruff; and even a McGruff-inspired monster truck.
In 1987, the Ad Council estimated that 99 percent of children in the United States between ages 6 to 12 recognized McGruff. That number has fallen over the years as McGruff’s advertising presence has faded, though in 2010 it was still a robust 76 percent of children ages 9 to 11.
Partly because of the penetration of those early ads, McGruff is still described as “informative” by 90 percent of adults, the National Crime Prevention Council said.
“We’re doing campaigns on intellectual property theft, mortgage fraud, foreclosure fraud,” Ms. Harkins said. “The character and the message remain the same, and we address emerging crimes with the same basic message.”
Seven years ago, the refurbished cartoons attempted to smooth out some of the wrinkles on his trench coat and add a more contemporary, glossier finish to the images. The effort was made, Ms. Pogue said, so “it didn’t feel like we had pulled him out of the ’70s.”
But if there is another reboot for his 40th birthday, in 2020, don’t expect McGruff to stray far.
“There was something about him that was always incredibly authentic,” Ms. Pogue said. “You wouldn’t want him talking the way kids talk today. I think you can update his attire and the topics that he tackles. But there’s a part of him that needs to remain really authentic to who he is.”
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