How An Airport Delay Led to McGruff’s Creation

Most brand mascots tend to be created at tables and desks, inside of homes and advertising agencies — not airport lounges. But McGruff the Crime Dog, the icon representing The National Crime Prevention Council, has never been like most mascots.

In 1979, Jack Keil was just another stranded airport passenger trying to make his way home. Back then; Keil was a Creative Director at the ad agency Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (better known as Saatchi & Saatchi today). The agency was working alongside the Ad Council and the National Crime Prevention Council to create a public service campaign that educated Americans on how they could get involved in reducing crime. Through focus groups conducted by the agency, the overall attitude shared by participants was that you simply couldn’t get rid of crime. There was just too much of it. While many felt helpless in the face of rising crime, they all agreed that if there was something simple they could do to help out they would.

This sparked an idea in Keil’s mind. The strategy wasn’t about eliminating crime altogether — truly an impossibility — but rather about adding up lots of little things that could empower Americans and their communities.

Before Keil could make it back to the West Coast to elaborate on these thoughts, his plane broke down in Kansas City. It would be hours before his next flight and he used this time to brainstorm ideas for the campaign in the airport lounge. During this time, he reflected on the popularity of Smokey Bear. What kind of character would work for this campaign? Keil considered elephants that could stomp at crime and lions that could roar at crime. He then realized that none of these animals could really get people motivated to help out — after all, you can’t roar at something until it goes away. He reflected back on the little things again. People needed to take nips out of crime. No, not nips… Bites!

“Take a bite out of crime!” It was Keil’s lightbulb moment and the birth of the famous slogan, which was rumored to be written on the back of an envelope. After the catchphrase came the character — a cartoon dog, since the first animal most immediately think of that bites is a dog.

Back at Dancer, Keil presented his ideas to the team. Sketches of the character showed a hound in a trench coat, partially inspired by Detective Columbo on the TV series Columbo. McGruff was wise and warm, a canine that served as a father figure. He could reassure you by putting his paw on your shoulder and provide advice on little things everyone could do to stop crime. Keil even voiced McGruff during his presentation, giving him a signature raspy sound. It was a hit. It was time to bring the campaign, and the character, to life in advertisements.

Print ads and commercial spots launched in 1980 with Keil continuing to voice the pup in commercials. Shortly after the ads came out, people began reaching out to The National Crime Prevention Council in droves for more information. Suddenly, crime was not just something only law enforcement officials could solve. Ordinary citizens could take charge too, by forming neighborhood watch groups, locking doors, and leaving porch lights on at night while they were away. As time progressed, McGruff began to target children and teenagers in addition to adults. He made visits to schools in the form of costumes and McGruff puppets and covered more topics including antibullying.

Since he first appeared on the scene, the world with McGruff in it has truly taken a lasting bite out of crime. Keil’s character remains trustworthy and recognizable in the eyes of children, teenagers, and adults as the nation’s crime prevention icon. His message continues to stay relevant about safe and sound communities and the mascot will continue to deliver these messages to help protect them.

Heather Taylor

Heather Taylor

Icon Researcher & Blogger at Advertising Week
Heather Taylor
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