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Creativity, Perseverance, and the Story of the Greatest Radio Spot That Ever Ran on Milwaukee Radio

Mar. 12, 2023 at 3:58PM

In the 1990s I was obsessed with getting into an advertising agency. I wanted to be a copywriter, and I combed over advertising award annuals, magazines, and textbooks in a self-induced creative college of one. I found that I had a knack for turning a phrase, and before the internet, my job in-house at the Boston Store at the Grand Avenue Mall became my personal portfolio-building factory. I know this dates me, but this was around the time the first Macintosh computers hit the ad business. They changed everything. All of a sudden you could lay out ads and insert photos and type with a “this feels like cheating” kind of simplicity.

In Milwaukee, the ad industry was quite large, amazingly, and while it always seemed to exist in the shadow of Minneapolis, where some of the greatest creative work was being produced at the time, Milwaukee held its own. And one of the reasons for that was Gary Mueller.

Gary’s name popped up in all the advertising books I was reading. His work at BVK, when it was just a small agency in Mequon, Wisconsin, was gaining national recognition for their work. I had never met Gary, but I knew I wanted to be like him, accomplish what he had accomplished (if that was possible), and find my work, one day, recognized in the same circles as his work. 

I came close to working at BVK when their office was in Mequon but lost out to another more experienced copywriter. It’s tough to break into the ad world—it’s kind of inside the inside of the inside. You keep connecting, keep pushing, keep working, and eventually hopefully someone will notice you. If your work sucked, you were toast. And Gary would tell you, albeit nicely. 

Gary and I have now known each other for the better part of at least 20 years. We’re lunching at Café Hollander thinking back on the old days, the new days, and how much advertising has changed over the years. But what I’m most curious about is the story of a radio spot he wrote for the Shaken Baby Association which I think is one of the greatest radio spots ever conceived.

Gary dives totally into a cause if he believes in it enough. He is passionate, and he speaks fast in a way that’s hard to get a word in edgewise. Once you get him started on the power of advertising, it’s hard to get him to stop. 

He’s got a huge heart, and one of the things I always admired about him is how he has this uncanny knack for getting the best out of people. He’s always positive, hardly ever down, and has encouraging words at the ready when he knows you need them. An illness that caused him tremendous back pain couldn’t even stop him. 

Now past middle age, Gary has never lost his love for advertising and its potential to change the trajectory of a client’s business. He shifted that passion towards the nonprofit world when he started Serve, the country’s first agency dedicated to nonprofits. Serve has gone on to do impactful work that has spread the word about important social causes like teen pregnancy, abusive relationships, the dangers of co-sleeping, and STD awareness.

But the impetus for Serve came about a year before its founding when Gary took a seemingly innocuous meeting with a woman named Margie Rehm, who was heading a nonprofit called the Shaken Baby Association. Margie’s son Hunter was shaken by a caregiver, Gary told me, and she made it her life’s mission to raise awareness about the dangers of shaking a baby.

“Hunter ended up having to have a shunt in his brain,” Gary told me, explaining what happens when you shake an infant. “When you shake a kid, their brain slams back and forth inside their skull, and because their head is too big and their neck is not strong enough to stop it from happening, three hard shakes can cause brain damage, blindness, hearing loss, seizures, or even death. A third of the kids die.”

Margie sat across from Gary in his office (his desk is the front end of an old Chevy pickup truck), and spoke passionately about her cause. But as nonprofits go, she had an organization with severe limitations—no money—and a massive ask. 

“She looks at me and says, ‘I want everybody to know what Shaken Baby Syndrome is,’” remembers Gary, who commended her for her dedication. “It’s great that you want everybody alive to know about it,” he told her. “You don't have a penny. You don't have any connections. You don't have any funding. I don't know what you want me to do.”

“I was so moved, and I was trying to be thoughtful and nice, but I'm literally sitting there thinking I would need thousands of dollars to buy media to build the type of awareness she wants.” 

It was then that Margie spoke the words that would haunt Gary, and throw down a challenge that people like Gary do not take lightly.

She said, “What if you could create a message that people only saw one time and they remembered it their whole life?”

The words frankly pissed Gary off at first. She had sold him on the cause. Her passion was palpable. But what she was asking for was nothing short of an advertising miracle, an almost impossible task. 

This was 1999; Gary was still a young and hungry upstart creative, who had adopted a mentality that so many great creatives have. “You can’t stop thinking about it,” he tells me, acknowledging that solving a creative problem almost becomes an obsession. Whatever it is you’re working on, brain cells are being expended every minute, almost subconsciously, to try and find a creative solution. 

He had written down a few notes here and there, mostly ideas that were either too expensive, unrealistic, or just bad. But the shaken baby problem was living rent-free in his head, and he couldn’t let it go.

It was around this time—January, 2000—that his second daughter Mia was born. She was colicky and had a hard time falling asleep. Nights were filled with Mia’s cries, and Gary remembers it like it was yesterday.

“I remember picking her up in the middle of the night, at my wit's end multiple times. I was on the verge of completely losing it, picking her up roughly. And I remember one specific moment when I backed off and hugged her. And I sat there and thought to myself that I need to make someone feel the exact way you feel before you actually shake a baby. That level of frustration. It’s all related to crying.”

It was an aha moment for Gary, and over the course of the next few days he recorded Mia’s cries (while trying to console her) onto a cassette tape. It was the birth of a radio spot that featured nearly 60 seconds of a baby crying, to give listeners the same kind of frustration parents feel when their child is inconsolable. It’s a feeling of helplessness and frustration and exhaustion all wrapped into one.

“It would drive you insane,” Gary says, who knew instinctively it was a radio spot that would be the perfect vehicle for drive time when he had a captive audience. The spot almost wrote itself.

“People would hear the crying, and at about the 50-second mark, a voice would say ‘No matter how frustrated you get, no matter how tired you are, never ever shake a baby.’”

The spot cost next to nothing to create, a home recording with Gary’s voice playing the announcer. A Mueller family production. All he needed to do now was to talk to some of his colleagues at the radio stations to see if he could get them to run the PSA during Milwaukee’s rush hour.

“Absolutely not,” Gary remembers the stations responding, instantaneously, “50 seconds of a baby crying? People will change the station.”

It was at that moment that Gary did something uncharacteristic: He gave up. That was in March of 2000. He shelved the spot, thinking the idea was dead.

Around July 2002, about a year later, Gary found himself on the board of the Shaken Baby Association, helping out where he could. In that year, there were more shaken-baby incidents than ever before, and the organization was desperate. They were doing some simple things—telling stories, running a print ad here and there, but nothing was breaking through. They came into the agency for a meeting one afternoon, and Gary found himself pissed off again. He had the solution that potentially could change everything, lying dormant on a shelf. 

“I remember I walked out of that meeting with the Shaken Baby Association thinking we’ve got to do something. And I walked out of my office, into the office right next to me.”

That office was occupied by a talented young writer named Pam Mufson, and Gary recounted the shaken baby story and the story of the radio spot that would never see the light of day.

She looked at Gary calmly and said, “Why don’t you have all the stations airing it at the same time?”

“It was like lightbulbs. Fireworks. I get goosebumps thinking about it,” Gary says. It happens so often in the creative business when you’re stuck, and can’t figure something out. You go up to someone who is way outside of it, with a fresh ear and a fresh perspective, and they solve the problem instantly. 

Gary may have given up, but I’m not sure he ever actually believed he had given up. In the mind of a creative person, there’s always a chance. And thanks to Pam’s prescient suggestion, the doors blew open.

What separates dull pencils from sharp ones is the ability to sell that idea, smartly, insightfully, and eloquently. And Gary was someone who rose to prominence because of his creative ability, coupled with his ability to convince people the idea was the right thing to do. So he crafted an email to the station managers of Milwaukee, a plea on behalf of the Shaken Baby Association, to be part of a historic event, one that could make national news. Every station in Milwaukee is going to run the exact same radio spot at a very specific time in unison. Nothing like it had ever been done before in media.

Upon sending the email, 12 of the 19 stations in Milwaukee said yes immediately. But Gary, not giving up, wanted all 19 stations. So a few days before the spot was scheduled to run Gary sent out another email that he admits now was not entirely truthful: “I send one last email telling them 90% of the stations are all in. If you want to participate in something that's going to be historic, jump in. Within one hour, everyone responded, ‘We're in.’”

Stations ran the Shaken Baby spot simultaneously at 7:20 a.m. on August 14, 2001, at the height of drive time. In preparation, news outlets were informed of a “historic radio event.” PR stories were teed up. When the spot ran there were stories of people pulling over by the side of the road sobbing. And for months afterward, shaken baby syndrome dominated local news. But the ultimate and most desired outcome was the reduction of shaken baby incidents, and after the spot ran, and shaken baby syndrome dominated the news, no shaken baby incidents were reported for the next four months. And in the following year, shaken baby incidents plummeted to single digits.

Word spread about the impact of the historic radio event and other states with similar problems—Indiana, Michigan, and Massachusetts—ran the spot for their local organizations.

Seven years later, when incidents started to tick up again they re-ran the spot to the same results. Strange how one simple radio spot can have such an immense impact. It’s the story of a  powerful idea and a lot of perseverance. All because of a daughter that wouldn’t stop crying.

“At that point in my life,” Gary says, “it taught me that it doesn't matter what you want to do as an ad guy. You just do what you can with what you have at that moment, it doesn't matter if you think it's good. You just do something. And it doesn't matter if you like it that much or it's the best ad you can do or it's gonna win an award. None of it matters. Just do something.”