11/12/2010 05:38 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Getting the Public to Care About K-12 Public Education (VIDEO)

Whatever you think about Waiting for 'Superman' -- whether you saw the documentary or read some of the buzz -- you can't deny that it's absolutely thought-provoking.

When first approached to make the film, Director Davis Guggenheim declined. And that's not hard to understand -- public education, he said, is "a storytelling quagmire."

We've faced a similar struggle at the Ad Council. Figuring out the "hook" to engage Americans around public education is no simple task, and we've spent a few years trying to figure it out.

Our challenge is this: How can you drill down an incredibly complicated issue -- education, climate change, obesity -- to a simple message that motivates the average American to do something? And what's the something?

Many people tune out when they feel overwhelmed by an issue like education or the environment -- how can reading to a kid or changing one light bulb possibly make a difference? Especially when such systemic and fundamental changes around school funding, teacher quality and standards are called for?

Here's what we've learned helps when trying to spark consumer action: You need to make the issue personal and relevant ("what's it in for me?"), you need to make "the ask" relatively doable and simple. And you need to make the consumer feel like what they're doing will make a difference.

For example, for our high-school dropout prevention campaign, Boost, we ask adults to mentor a child. For our college access campaign, KnowHow2Go, we ask kids to learn the four main steps they need to take to prepare for and apply to college. For our adult literacy campaign, we ask people to visit a very simple website and find out the steps they need to take to get their GED.

About two years ago, we collaborated with the Broad Foundation to see if we could persuade adults -- especially the three-quarters in this country who don't have school-age children -- to care and our schools and do something.

In our research, we didn't find a perfect "call-to-action" (We recognize that the most significant improvements will come from policy initiatives at the local, state and federal level). Instead, we landed on a variety of actions, ranging from mentoring, joining a local group, educating others, advocating at the state level, supporting your schools' teachers, etc. And, like any good marketer, we split potential audiences into segments in order to identify who among the public is most likely to step up. But the main insight for us is that any appeal to the public about public education must provide not only a sense of urgency but also a sense of hope -- that change is not only possible, it's happening in communities across the country.

As Waiting for 'Superman' certainly showed, there are no easy fixes when it comes to education. But unless we all find a way to plug-in and help solve this problem, we're succumbing to mediocrity and indifference. The question shouldn't be "will my action make a difference?" rather "what I am doing to figure out what will?"