The Ad Council partners with advertising agencies who work pro bono to create the public service advertisements on behalf of their campaigns. The organization accepts requests from sponsor institutions for advertising campaigns that focus on particular social issues. To qualify, an issue must be non-partisan (though not necessarily unbiased) and have national relevance.
The Ad Council distributes the advertisements to a network of 33,000 media outlets—including broadcast, print, outdoor (i.e. billboards, bus stops), and Internet—who run the ads in donated time and space. Media outlets donate approximately $1.8 billion to Ad Council campaigns annually. If paid for, this amount would make the Ad Council one of the largest advertisers in the country.
The Advertising Council was conceived in 1941, and shortly after, in February 1942, it was incorporated as the War Advertising Council (WAC) for the purpose of mobilizing the advertising industry in support of the war effort. Early campaigns encouraged enlistment to the military, the purchase of war bonds, and conservation of war materials.
Before the conclusion of the Second World War President Franklin D. Roosevelt requested that the Ad Council continue its work during peacetime. The War Advertising Council changed its name to the Advertising Council and shifted its focus to issues such as atomic weapons, world trade and religious tolerance. In 1945, the Ad Council began working with the National Safety Council.
Since FDR, every U.S. president has supported the Ad Council’s work. In the 1950s First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower appeared in the Ad Council’s anti-communism ads. In the 1980s First Lady Nancy Reagan collaborated with the Ad Council on the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign.
The Ad Council’s first president, Theodore Repplier, assumed leadership of the organization in 1947. Robert Keim succeeded Repplier as Ad Council president from 1966 to 1987, and Ruth Wooden succeeded Keim from 1987 to 1999, when the current president, Peggy Conlon, began her tenure. 
The Ad Council celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2012. The Ad Council released an infographic that demonstrated its impact through the years on issues including safety belts, autism, litter reduction, crime and wildfire prevention. 
Savings Bond (1942 - 1980) The first campaign by the then War Advertising Council encouraged Americans to support the war effort by purchasing war bonds.
Security of War Information - Loose Lips Sink Ships (1942 - 1945) The first campaign by the then War Advertising Council encouraged Americans to support the war effort by purchasing war bonds.
Wildfire Prevention (1944–present) The Ad Council’s longest running campaign, Smokey Bear and his tagline, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires," was created in 1944 to educate Americans about the harm wildfires could cause the war effort, and the danger that the Japanese might deliberately start forest fires by shelling the West Coast of the United States. It was 1947 when the iconic Smokey Bear phrase was finally coined: "Remember...only YOU can prevent forest/wild fires!" The Forest Fire Prevention campaign has helped reduce the number of acres lost annually to wildfire from 22 million to 8.4 million (in 2000).
American Red Cross (1945 - 1996) The Ad Council PSAs for the American Red Cross has recruited blood donors, enlisted volunteers, and raised funds for the Red Cross for more than 50 years.
Polio (1958 - 1961) PSAs for the polio vaccine helped get 80% of the at-risk populace fully immunized, eradicating the disease in the USA.
Peace Corps (1961 - 1991) PSAs featuring the tagline "The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love" helped recruit thousands of volunteers to the program. In 1991, 30 percent of Peace Corps volunteers had been reached through the Ad Council's recruitment campaign.
Drunk Driving Prevention (1983–present) Intended to reduce the number of DUI accidents and alcohol-related fatalities, this campaign with the U.S. Department of Transportation has featured the taglines: "Drinking & Driving Can Kill A Friendship," "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" and “Buzzed Driving is Drunk Driving.”
Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies (1985 – present) a campaign about safety belts. Since the introduction of this campaign, safety belt usage has increased from 14% to 79%, saving an estimated 85,000 lives, and $3.2 billion in costs to society.
AIDS Prevention (1988 - 1990) This Ad Council ad campaign was the first to use the word "condom" in America. The PSAs informed Americans of the dangers of the HIV and encouraged them to "Help stop AIDS. Use a condom."
Domestic Violence (1994–present) The PSAs encourage people to get involved in efforts to prevent domestic violence and to intervene if they know someone in an abusive relationship. In the first year of the campaign, more than 34,000 calls were made to the Family Violence Prevention hotline.
I am an American (2001–present) a campaign launched in wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks emphasizing the diversity of America. The ad features people of many ethnicities looking in the camera and simply saying "I am an American". A slightly updated version of the ad was shown in 2011, during the 10th anniversary of the attacks.
Adoption from Foster Care (2004–present) This campaign delivers the message that “You don’t have to be perfect to be a perfect parent.” Since the beginning of the campaign, more than 14,000 families have registered to adopt kids through the campaign website AdoptUSKids.org.
Autism Awareness (2006–present) The PSAs encourage parents to visit autismspeaks.org/signs to learn the signs of autism and to find out about early intervention. The campaign won an Effie Award for advertising effectiveness in 2008, a Silver Telly in 2009, a Silver Addy and Gold Ogilvy in 2011.
Gay and Lesbian Bullying Prevention (2008–present) GLSEN and Ad Council launched the first campaign to address anti-gay language among teens. PSAs feature celebrities such as Wanda Sykes, Grant Hill and Hilary Duff and ask kids to stop using homophobic language such as “That’s so gay.”
Fatherhood Involvement (2008–present) PSAs featuring the tagline "Take time to be a dad today" encourage fathers to play an active role in their children's lives. The campaign’s “Cheerleader” PSA is one of the Ad Council’s most popular PSAs and has earned $9.7 million in donated media since 2008.
FWD campaign with USAID (2011–present) In September 2011, Ad Council and USAID launched the FWD campaign to spread awareness about famine, war and drought in the Horn of Africa. The initiative garnered the participation of celebrities like Uma Thurman, Geena Davis, Josh Hartnett, Chanel Iman and Anthony Bourdain who starred in Public Service Announcements that asked the public to "forward the facts" about the crisis.
The "We Can Do It!" poster was used by the Ad Council for its 70th anniversary celebration, through a Facebook app called "Rosify Yourself." However, the historic image was not produced by the War Advertising Council.
The Ad Council claimed the 1943 "We Can Do It!" poster (associated with Rosie the Riveter after 1982) was developed by the WAC as part of its "Women in War Jobs" campaign. In February 2012 during the Ad Council's 70th anniversary celebration, an interactive application designed by Animax's HelpsGood digital agency was linked to the Ad Council's Facebook page. The Facebook app was called "Rosify Yourself" and it allowed viewers to upload images of their faces to be incorporated into the "We Can Do It!" poster, then saved to be shared with friends. Ad Council President and CEO Peggy Conlon posted her own "Rosified" face on Huffington Post in an article about the Ad Council's past 70 years of public service. The staff of the TV show Today posted two "Rosified" images on their website, using the faces of news anchors Matt Lauer and Ann Curry. However, the now-famous poster was actually produced by an internal Westinghouse corporate program as part of a series of posters shown to Westinghouse employees for two weeks then discarded. It was not produced by the Ad Council nor was it used for recruiting women workers.
Organizations with campaigns done by the Ad Council
Radio show host/Comedian Adam Carolla has many times taken umbrage with the Ad Council on both his show, The Adam Carolla Show and Loveline, stating that they do not provide any value, and that the topics they choose to provide statements on are not real issues that affect Americans, such as airplane turbulence, or are issues that an ad on public radio could not possibly do anything about, such as housing discrimination. Furthermore, Carolla has stated that this valuable time taken up could be used to enlighten Americans on topics such as teen pregnancy and options, or illiteracy, topics that have a much more significant impact on society.
The Ad Council has been further criticized for distracting the public by focusing on individual lifestyle changes, rather than on the need to fix social problems by changing institutions, such as the Ad Council's many corporate sponsors, or the government and military, whose campaigns the Ad Council has also promoted.
Ad Council spots are used to fill unsold air time by stations and networks. Controversial programming, such as Rush Limbaugh's radio show, have unsold air time which are filled with program promos, station plugs and PSAs including Ad Council PSAs. Activists not familiar with the Ad Council's business model have complained to the Ad Council and the subjects of Ad Council PSAs. This led the Ad Council to state that the subjects of Ad Council spots have no control over where those spots air. One of the organizations with Ad Council spots, the AARP, has issued a similar statement.
^"Frequently Asked Questions". Ad Council. Retrieved September 24, 2012. "Working in tandem with the Office of War Information, the Ad Council created campaigns such as Buy War Bonds, Plant Victory Gardens, 'Loose Lips Sink Ships,' and Rosie the Riveter's 'We Can Do it.'"