PSA History looks at the stories behind the famous—and infamous—public service announcements we all remember.
Death, celebrity endorsements and drug crimes both real and imagined. These may sound like the building blocks of a Scorsese-helmed street drama, but they are here used to describe an animated giant in the world of Public Service Announcements: McGruff the Crime Dog.
McGruff trotted onto television screens in July of 1980, wearing a trench coat and admonishing delinquents in a husky baritone that sounded absolutely ravaged by years of chain-smoking (do as he says, kids, not as he does).
The crime dog was developed in collaboration between the ad company Saatchi & Saatchi and the National Crime Prevention Council. Within a few short years, McGruff became one of the most popular and recognizable PSA campaigns of all time, spawning a multitude of advertisements, posters and school programs.
In honor of the dog who proposed to "take a bite out of crime," let’s look at some of the lesser-known facts about the patrolling pooch.
The character was originally voiced by its creator—an old school ad man.
While most characters found in PSAs are generally assumed to be the product of committee thinking and rigorous focus testing, McGruff was closely associated with his creator - New York ad man Jack Keil. Before creating his most enduring work, Keil worked on several campaigns for companies ranging from Toyota to Cheerios.
Inspired by the enduring success of Smokey the Bear, Keil wanted to develop a similarly catchy slogan delivered by an animal mascot that would help bring awareness to crime the way Smokey had for forest fires. After considering and dismissing several options - including an elephant, a deer and a cougar - he finally settled on a dog.
“You can’t crush crime or defeat it altogether, but you can snap at it, nibble at it - take a bite out of crime!” Keil told Smithsonian magazine in 1988 by way of explanation.
Keil himself provided the voice for McGruff for over two decades, retiring shortly before his death in 2017 at the age of 94.
It was quickly determined that McGruff was better suited for fighting low-level crime.
Today, most people know McGruff for his stance on smaller, less-consequential crimes, such as low-level drug possession and theft. Early in his career, however, McGruff’s sights were set much higher, with the National Crime Prevention Council looking to tackle a far wider range of crimes including kidnapping, murder and gun violence.
Unfortunately, McGruff’s official position on handling these crimes were never revealed, as the council’s then-CEO, Jack Calhoun, made a decision to temporarily rein in the use of the character, thinking - perhaps rightly - that a big, cartoon dog was not best fit for tackling these issues.
McGruff was once arrested for felony drug and weapon possession
More specifically, an actor that had once donned the famous McGruff suit was arrested back in 2011 for possession of a staggering amount of illegal marijuana and unlicensed firearms. The culprit - 41 year-old John R. Morales - pleaded guilty to the crimes and was sentenced to 16 years in prison (a life sentence in dog years).
Adding irony atop of irony, it was a drug-sniffing dog that had detected the marijuana seeds that led to Morales' bust after he was pulled over for speeding. A subsequent raid on his house yielded an additional 1000 marijuana plants and an assortment of 27 weapons, including a grenade launcher - presumably intended to blow a massive hole out of crime.
Morales defended himself by claiming to be a nonviolent individual, according to Time magazine, but the district judge dismissed his plea, saying, "Everything I read about you makes you seem like a scary person."
To give you a sense of what a weapon-toting McGruff would look like, check out this animated episode of Screwattack's 'Death Battle' in which he finally takes on Smokey.
He cut an album in 1986, and it’s incredible.
Back in the mid-eighties, when McGruff was at the peak of his influence, he was regularly appearing on television as well as in costume at public events where he preached the values of safety and clean living to children across the country. During that heyday, somebody suggested cutting a record to help spread his message. Luckily for us, they did just that in 1986.
Sporting six tracks and some serious production values, the record clearly should have been a Grammy contender for Album of the Year. Unfortunately, the distinction went to that talentless hack Paul Simon instead.
Just to give you a taste of how good this album is, we here present “Marijuana,” a song that, while we may not fully agree with its messaging, is undeniably a club banger.
Most icons in the PSA world tend to become historical oddities, relegated to the pop-cultural waste basket after a few years and several thousand jokes at their expense. But somehow, McGruff still remains at the center of the National Crime Prevention Council’s messaging.
And they've even loaned out the character to other organizations a few times. Most recently, McGruff made an appearance in a 2018 Geico commercial that focused more on his experience with workplace discrimination than it did on his renowned crime-fighting ability.
To keep track of McGruff’s latest capers, you can find them on his YouTube channel, which semi-regularly posts new cartoons highlighting McGruff’s favorite talking points on topics like bullying and gun safety. While we wouldn’t recommend a binge-watch, it’s nice to know that McGruff is still out there, standing as a symbol for truth, justice, and debatable use of federal funding.