by Kurt Chandler, photo by Nick Collura
The YouTube video is called “Son Caught in the Act,” and it opens with a mother doing the laundry. Off camera, we hear a boy moaning in ecstasy. The mother tiptoes down the hallway to her teenager’s closed bedroom door. The moaning and groaning gets louder and louder, until, in a panic, the mother flings open the door.
“Oh my God!” she exclaims.
From over the boy’s shoulder, we see him sitting in bed.
“Jason! If you keep doing that you’ll go blind.”
We now see him from the waist up. He’s a big boy,
“But it’s just a triple bacon cheeseburger,” he pleads, lifting the object of his desireinto sight and taking a bite.
“Poor eating habits can lead to diabetes, the No. 1 cause of blindness,” says a stern voiceover. “Help prevent your kids from getting diabetes. … Go to DiabetesIsNoPicnic.com.”
The online video was created last fall by the upstart agency Serve Marketing. Like all of Serve’s ads, it’s edgy, it’s potent, it’s made to stop people in their tracks.
Serve is the brainchild of Gary Mueller, an ad man for 20 years with BVK, a Glendale-based advertising firm. Serve is uniquely structured, run by just three people and sustained by an army of volunteers – copywriters and art directors at BVK, mostly – who donate hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of billable hours each year to create ad campaigns for nonprofit groups. Serve itself is a nonprofit, an arm of BVK.
“There’s no model for this,” says Mueller, 46. “We’re doing something that goes against things ad agencies have been doing for 40 years.”
Just two weeks after the video went online, “Son Caught in the Act” caught the eye of the American Diabetes Association’s national office, which apparently didn’t appreciate Serve’s, ah, carnal sense of humor. On Nov. 18, 2009, the ADA sent Serve a cease-and-desist order, claiming Serve had violated the federal Trademark Act, using the association’s name and logo without authorization.
The next day, Mueller fired off a reply, pointing out that, beginning in 2004, Serve had worked on several diabetes campaigns with the full approval of the Wisconsin chapter. “By the way,” he added, “the estimated in-kind value of these donated services to the ADA … total more than $200,000.”
Serve hasn’t heard from the ADA since.
“They realized they had no legal leg to stand on,” Mueller surmises. But as a gesture of goodwill, Serve removed the ADA logos from the ads.
“Son Caught in the Act,” however, went viral. By mid-May, the video had hit 155,000 views on YouTube.
It’s not uncommon for ad agencies to do pro bono work for charitable causes. But Serve is a renegade. It takes on causes that seem impossible to solve – child abuse, gun violence, teen pregnancy – with ads that make people squirm.
“The people who love us would lay down their lives on a train track for us,” says Heather Aldrich, Serve’s executive director. “But those who hate us…”
They would perhaps like to run the train over Serve.
In the world of nonprofits, public service announcements have been typically inoffensive and unsurprising – a piano arpeggio playing softly behind a “you can make a difference” message that goes for the heart strings. But Serve goes for the gut. Its M.O. is guerrilla marketing, low-budget, in-your-face and often outrageous: a pregnant boy, blond and shirtless, his belly bulging disturbingly; a poster of a cell phone wrapped inside a condom, urging teenagers to “Please practice safe text.”
“We do campaigns that make people mad,” says Mueller. “It’s irresponsible to put out a message that’s safe, that’s tame, just to make you feel good. Some happy-go-lucky message isn’t going to do anything.”
Gary Mueller was an ambitious young ad man in the go-go ’90s, racking up awards and eyeing a partnership at BVK, when he got a phone call from a friend of a friend. She was a mother whose baby had suffered brain damage after being shaken by a baby sitter. Margie Rehm, co-founder of the statewide Shaken Baby Association, wanted Mueller to create a public service campaign.
Mueller had done occasional PSAs for local churches and the like. But shaken baby syndrome? He just didn’t have the time.
Rehm wouldn’t take no for an answer. She talked Mueller into meeting, and as he listened to her story, he decided he had to help. He agreed to join the board of Rehm’s association and to come up with an ad – for zero dollars.
With a baby daughter of his own, Mueller knew how maddening an infant’s endless crying could be. One day at home he recorded his daughter Mia crying nonstop for 50 seconds. He tacked on a warning to the end: “No matter how long she cries, or how tired you are, or how frustrated you get, never, ever shake a baby.” The one-minute PSA was ready to go.
But local radio stations didn’t buy it: A literal turnoff; listeners would change the station in a second, they said. Mueller put the idea on the shelf.
Over the next two years, the number of shaken baby cases increased. In the first half of 2001, more than two dozen cases were reported in metro Milwaukee.
Mueller dusted off his radio spot. A colleague at BVK had a suggestion: Why not get all the stations in Milwaukee to play it at the same time?
This time, station managers went for it. At 7:20 a.m. on Aug. 14, 2001, the crying Mia ad aired on 18 radio stations – 95 percent of the drive-time audience. In the following four months, not a single shaken baby case was reported by Milwaukee-area hospitals.
Mueller was hooked. He liked working for a social cause.
Around that time, Mueller and his wife, Deb, decided to attend services at a new church a few miles from their rural Mequon home. Living Word Lutheran Church was holding services in a former funeral home in the town of Jackson. Deb had known Pastor Tim Niekerk and his wife in college.
In his sermon, Pastor Tim spoke about how each person on earth has a certain talent, a certain gift that’s meant to be shared for the benefit of others.
“In the middle of his sermon, I stopped hearing him talk,” Mueller recalls. A new path opened before him. As they left the church, a giddy Mueller turned to his wife: “I know what I’m going to do with the rest of my life.”
They sat in the car and talked, and all the details – the name of the agency, how to run it, who to hire – came to him in a flash.
“It was an epiphany,” he says. “I realized my whole life up to that point had been pointing in a single direction.”
The following day, he sat down with his boss, Mike Voss, BVK’s president and CEO, and worked out a deal: Mueller would forgo a partnership at BVK along with any profit-sharing and pay raises for 10 years. In exchange, BVK would donate in-kind hours from staff to create public service ads for nonprofit clients.
It was risky. Mueller had a mortgage, two young children, a teenage daughter by a previous marriage and another child yet to be born. His wife, a former account manager at BVK, was a stay-at-home mom. But the fast track was no longer so important to him.
Serve Marketing was started in 2002 with a mission to provide “a strong voice” to underserved charitable causes.
The crying baby “radio roadblock” aired again in 2004, this time on more than 200 stations statewide. Again, the number of reported shaken baby cases dropped. In May 2009, the radio spot ran again during rush hour in metro Milwaukee. The number of reported cases fell to zero between May and September, after a record number of 30 cases in 2008, says Jennifer Horth, vice president of the Shaken Baby Association.
“Nothing else has been able to achieve that kind of result,” she says. “We are so saturated with media messages that nothing surprises or shocks us. Worse, though, nothing much moves us. Serve somehow manages to find ways to stand out in the midst of the din. Whether or not we like the ad, we feel something, we think something. And maybe, just maybe, we do something.”
Serve took on other nonprofits – Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Epilepsy Foundation, the Domestic Violence Coalition of Milwaukee County.
In 2006, Serve teamed up with United Way of Greater Milwaukee and the city of Milwaukee Health Department to reduce teen pregnancies. Since the early 1990s, the teen birth rate nationally had been steadily dropping, but it remained stubbornly high here. In 2003, Milwaukee ranked fourth-worst among the country’s 25 largest cities. The city and United Way set a goal to cut teen births by 46 percent by 2015, and Serve has annually contributed $500,000 to $750,000 of in-kind creative services since 2006, says Mueller.
“No other agency would sign on to a commitment like this,” he adds.
Serve’s first teen pregnancy campaign was a graffiti message – “For a good time, call…” – posted with a phone number on billboards, bus shelters and buses. But instead of a good time, callers got the weary voice of a teen mom complaining about being a parent – changing diapers, waking up in the middle of the night. And in the background, a baby screamed uncontrollably.
The graffiti was followed by a series of pregnant-boy ads and bus-shelter posters of a scratch-and-sniff diaper (“This doesn’t really stink. But the consequences of teen pregnancy do…”). Like the shaken baby campaign, the ads were jarring. “You have to whack people over the head,” Mueller says. “You have to trick them.”
Interestingly, teens themselves didn’t mind. In fact, in focus groups they said the ads didn’t go far enough. “The kids have said over and over, teens have to understand how hard it is to be a parent,” says Nicole Angresano, vice president of community impact at United Way.
A Serve radio spot in 2008 pushed the limit even further by focusing on statutory rape. According to the Health Department, 71 percent of the children born to underage mothers are fathered by men over 20.
Serve served up a hard-hitting spot:
Hello, rapist. You don’t mind if I call you that, do you? Sure, rapist is kind of an ugly word, but let’s not sugarcoat this. You’re over 18 and you had sex with a teenage girl. That’s rape. Now I know rapists like yourself probably don’t think of yourselves as rapists, but what other term should we use: Nice older guy who tricks an underage girl into having sex? It’s a little wordy. Rapist gets right to the point. But hey, what do you care? I mean, maybe being a rapist hasn’t changed your life, but it’s changed two other people’s lives – the girl you raped and the baby who doesn’t have a father…
The PSA created a stir. “It really hit home,” says Homer Blow, former program and music director of WNOV-AM. “Listeners were taken aback because it was so in your face. But they said, ‘You know what? This is how it needs to be said.’ ”
Neither the Health Department nor United Way flinched. “We live in a world of images and sound,” says Commissioner of Health Bevan Baker. “It requires a lot more to gain the attention, and we must use different tactics.”
The ad got the attention of rap artist Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. In early December, Angresano got a phone call from Eddie Levert Jr. of Levert Entertainment Group in Los Angeles. “He was very upset,” she says, about the radio spot and a bus-shelter poster showing an older, predatory male looking suggestively at a teenage girl. Levert told her Combs and the California hip-hop and rap community were offended. “He said the ads were vilifying teens that were teen parents … and we could expect a call from P. Diddy.”
But Angresano says the call from Combs never came.
In early 2008, Mueller and Aldrich knocked on the door of Pathfinders, a nonprofit service for runaway and homeless youth. They had heard a troubling statistic: On any given night in Milwaukee, 400 teens are without a place to sleep.
For nearly 40 years, Pathfinders, formerly the Counseling Center of Milwaukee, operated under the radar, with a marketing strategy that was banal and “in the box” – monthly newsletters, annual reports and newspaper ads, says Dan Magnuson, the president and CEO. Serve’s idea was unlike anything Pathfinders had ever tried: Put up 15 billboards around town, completely blank. On the catwalk beneath each board would be a life-size cut-out photo of a teenage girl sleeping under a blanket. Beneath one of the billboards, a real teenager would sleep for a night. Two weeks later, new billboards would appear above the sleeping girls with a message: “Didn’t notice her? That’s the real problem. Stop teen homelessness.”
Pathfinders’ leaders deliberated: Was the campaign too bold? Would it be seen as exploitative of kids?
The board of directors gave Serve the green light and the billboards went up. As a follow-through, three dozen lifelike decals of homeless teens were placed on sidewalks throughout the city – in front of banks, stores, movie theaters, coffee shops. The message: “Maybe more teens would have a place to sleep if the rest of us woke up.”
The local media ate it up. TV, radio and newspaper coverage generated a media buzz for weeks. Pathfinders suddenly was on the map.
“How does homelessness get into the consciousness of a person? In my opinion, it has to come through a visceral feeling,” says Magnuson. “When you see those replicas of the kids, you feel it.”
Gary Mueller is always in motion. Even when standing still, he’s really not. He twitches, he shuffles. His fingers dance and dart when he speaks, his ideas shooting like sparks across the room.
Mueller’s small office at BVK is a creative clutter. A campy Elvis telephone sits on top of a DVD player. His children’s drawings hang on the door. Four chairs salvaged from a theater are shoved against the wall. On the wall is a poster of Smokey The Bear – the original public service ad campaigner – with the caption: “Everybody who saw him screamed. Until he got into advertising.”
Conspicuously occupying a corner of the room is the chopped front end of a blue GMC pickup truck, year unknown. Just the hood, grill and fenders.
“Driving home with my kids one day, I saw this parked at the end of someone’s driveway,” Mueller says, gazing fondly at the relic. “So I stopped to take a look. The kids were climbing all over it and a farmer comes out and asks what we’re doing. … I ended up getting it for $100.”
He hauled it into his office, balanced it upon two half-size file cabinets, and – voila!– a desk.
Mueller used to have a corner office. But the office was always cold, so he vacated and turned it into a meeting room. A wall was lined with sheet metal so artwork could be hung with magnets, a steel butcher’s table was added, and the room was christened the Meat Locker.
“We didn’t want it too comfortable,” he says. “We want people moving around and alert.”
The Meat Locker is where ideas are sliced and diced, you might say. On a day in late winter, Mueller calls together a handful of BVK writers and art directors for a brainstorming session. It’s like a scene from TV’s “Mad Men,” but instead of white shirts, French cuffs and skinny ties circa 1963, the “creatives” are wearing blue jeans and cotton sweaters over oxford shirts, shirt-tails fashionably untucked. And instead of pitching ideas for a speedboat or soap ad, the creatives must help solve some of the community’s toughest problems.
First up: the alarming number of deaths of babies sleeping with their parents.
Working with the Health Department, Serve produced two radio spots in the fall of 2009, both recorded by a voice actor who sounds uncannily like Morgan Freeman, urging caregivers to place their babies in cribs and not with them in bed:
… Imagine you’re a newborn baby, sleeping in your parents’ bed, and a pillow or down comforter gets pushed against your face so you can’t breathe. Your arm muscles aren’t developed enough to move it off you. You can’t roll yourself over. And worst of all, your parents are sound asleep and have no idea what you’re going through…
Next came an outdoor ad showing adouble bed with a tombstone as its headboard: “For too many babies last year, this was their final resting place.”
The deaths continued – four fatalities after the billboard campaign began. Frustrated, Mueller asked his BVK creatives for something more aggressive.
Sitting around the butcher table, copywriter Mike Holicek and art director Mitch Markussen begin pitching ideas: How about a print ad with a baby sleeping on a mother’s chest, but inverted so it appears that the baby’s sleeping underneath her? Or filling a couple dozen baby cribs with plastic dolls and placing them in local grocery stores, shopping malls and neighborhoods?
“Taking it to the extreme, we could design a crushed doll under the tire of a car to show how much pressure an adult can put on a baby,” says Markussen.
“It scares me,” Mueller says, “but that’s why I like it.”
More ideas: Chalk the outlines of a baby’s body on mattresses and place them on busy city streets. … Shoot a time-lapse TV spot of an adult sleeping alone in bed – lying in a dozen different positions after tossing and turning – then end it with a baby lying next to the sleeping adult…
“That’s a great one,” says Mueller.
Mueller has just returned to work after a two-week leave for back surgery. To relievethe spasms, he needs to constantly change positions. He paces. He drops onto a sofa and stretches. He rolls onto his stomach, then drops to the floor and lies spread-eagle on his back.
“I keep seeing that video ‘Pants on the Ground,’ that homeless guy on ‘American Idol,’ ” someone says, referring to a man from Atlanta whose bizarre rap – “Lookin’ like a fool with your pants on the ground” – stunned the “Idol” judges and went viral on the Internet.
“Yeah, get that guy from Atlanta or find somebody else in Milwaukee,” Mueller says, “and do something like ‘Baby on the bed, baby on the bed. Roll over on your baby and your baby is dead…’ ”
Ideas bounce around the room like silly putty. After an hour, a dozen sketches hang on the sheet-metal wall. Mueller narrows it down to three: the mattress idea, the time-lapse spot and – the wacky crowd-pleaser – “Pants on the Ground.” He’ll present them to the Health Department for feedback.
Next up, teen pregnancy. Serve was invited to submit ideas for a TV commercial to the Candie’s Foundation, a national teen pregnancy education group. The spokesperson for the commercial will be Sarah Palin’s daughter, Bristol, who got pregnant at 17.
A new team of creatives files into the Meat Locker. They’ve got just two hours to deliver.
“Whaddaya got?” Mueller asks.
The ideas come fast and furious, some starkly serious, some laugh-out-loud funny, and some in very bad taste, often greeted with hoots and howls. Everything’s on the table, the good, the bad and the ugly, whatever feeds the muse.
“OK, so, a young couple is rolling around in bed,” starts one creative. “The camera pulls back, and Bristol Palin is sitting in a chair with her child, reminding the couple of the consequences of teenage sex…”
Someone else tries: “Bristol Palin is breast feeding, and as the baby is fed, he gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Bristol looks up from her baby and speaks to the camera. ‘Being a teen mom can really be a drain on you…’ ”
Everybody groans. “That is creepy.”
Another creative suggests Bristol as a student, lugging around a bowling ball wherever she goes. Heads nod in approval.
Another creative offers “Disappearing Act.” He reads from a script, setting up the scene:
“Open on Bristol Palin in a very nicely furnished room with her toddler son. She’s nicely dressed and made-up.”
What if I didn’t come from a famous family? Palin says to the camera. What if I didn’t have all their support?
“With each line she delivers,” reads the writer, “her surroundings become rattier-looking. Family photos disappear. She looks more bedraggled.”
Palin: What if I didn’t get all the media attention? What if I didn’t have so much opportunity?
“By the time she delivers her last line, she’s sitting in a very spare, flyblown room – looking isolated and worn down.”
Palin: I would have been just like any other teen mother. Believe me. It wouldn’t have been pretty.
Being a teen mother can be a rough road. Pause before you play…
The next day, the Candie’s Foundation tells Mueller it likes “Disappearing Act.” The foundation will kick in $25,000
for production costs; Serve’s time will be pro bono.
Mueller will fly to Los Angeles to film Bristol Palin.
It’s estimated that every American is exposed to 3,000 marketing messages every day. That’s TV, radio, online, newspapers, magazines, billboards, bumper stickers, grocery bags and so on.
Rising above the fray of all these messages makes advertising a ruthless business. Agencies compete fiercely to win and retain clients and creative talent.
The competition and jealousy may be worse among co-workers within an agency. “It’s often cut-throat,” says Michael Stodola, a creative director at Boelter + Lincoln for 10 years. “You can go into a [pitch] meeting and just get your ass whipped.”
Serve’s unique position as a crusader for high-profile causes has generated sniping. It’s been derided by some in the ad community as “Self-Serve” for using overhyped stunts to win public praise and awards.
“There’s the talk – that Gary Mueller is a shameless self-promoter,” says Stodola,who worked with Mueller at BVK for two years in the late ’90s. “Then there’s the work,” he adds admiringly. “Some of it might be a little overly dramatic, but a lot of it makes me jealous.”
Mueller’s brusque style probably increases that sort of envy. “He’s one of those guys where you have to keep up with him or you’re left on the sideline,” Stodola says.
Critics complain Mueller has an easier time getting clients to approve his ideas because his work is donated. “When the work is free, there’s a lot less people stepping on your toes,” says another creative director.
Actually, the process for pro bono ads is pretty much the same, Mueller answers. Serve’s ads must meet the approval of a nonprofit’s board of directors or review committee before they’re launched. None of them is a guaranteed sell.
“In our first four years, almost every campaign we did was killed,” Mueller says. “Dozens were killed.”
Early on, Serve came up with an ad for the Brain Injury Association to dramatize the danger of not wearing protective head-gear: a photo of a man skateboarding naked. “Oh my. No helmet,” said the caption.
Oh no, said the client, which wanted something less provocative. As a substitute, Serve came up with posters of a helmetless skier, bicyclist and skateboarder on an oversized blanket, bed sheet and cushion, with the tamer message: “Until the world’s this safe, wear a helmet.”
Today, when teaming up with a nonprofit, “We have to know the client won’t run at the sight of blood,” says Serve’s Aldrich.
Aldrich was hired four years ago. She’d heard the talk that Mueller was all about awards. “I really didn’t think this would be a long-term job,” says Aldrich, 46, the former marketing director at Milwaukee’s PBS-affiliate channels 10/36 and an Emmy-winning producer. She wasn’t sure if Gary was “genuine.”
But seeing him in action, Aldrich was convinced. “I began to see that it was the cause, as opposed to selling things in 30 seconds, that motivated him,” she says.
BVK creative director Jon Krill has worked at ad firms in Chicago, Minneapolis and Milwaukee. He knew of Mueller and the “Self-Serve” nickname before joining BVK. “Before I thought it was true,” he says. Now he regards the putdown as sour grapes by other local ad men.
“He’s made a commitment,” says Krill. “He feels a need to help people out.”
Some question whether Serve’s campaigns are effective. What direct link is there between its ads and the number of pregnant teens or sexual assaults? “Show me the effect,” says one ad executive. “I don’t think there is one.”
Clients – from the Health Department, United Way and Pathfinders, to the Boys & Girls Club, AIDS Resource Center and American Lung Association – line up behind Serve, claiming its campaigns have moved people to action.
Serve’s PSA for a 2008 hunger walk was “instrumental” in boosting the participation by almost 70 percent, reports Dave Schwab, director of St. Ben’s Community Meal program. At Pathfinders, its charitable contributions jumped 20 to 25 percent in one year, says Magnuson, helping the organization open a new drop-in center at 4200 N. Holton St. for runaway youth.
Serve’s teen pregnancy campaigns have been “received really positively,” says United Way’s Angresano. “While [the ads] may be uncomfortable and produce some grimaces, they’re working.” From 2006 to 2008, the birth rate for 15- to 17-year-olds in Milwaukee dropped by 8.7 percent, according to the Health Department.
Milwaukee County district attorney John Chisholm is another fan. He met Mueller and Aldrich in 2007 when they offered to help a communitywide effort to reduce gun violence. He was taken off guard, thinking they were asking for funding.
Serve eventually produced a series of ads of bleeding bullet holes in school zone signs, along with a dramatic video called “One Shot.” The video is a montage of violent shootings, beginning with two teen boys pushing and shoving each other in a parking lot. The video shifts into slow motion as one boy pulls out a revolver and shoots the other in the chest. Cutting to a scene in a restaurant, a bullet pierces the back of a waitress as she brings a pot of coffee to a table. Next, a bullet fells a man as he walks through an office, a woman folding laundry in her home, a priest walking down the steps of a church. “Gun violence isn’t someone else’s problem,” the ad declares. “Eventually we all feel the impact.”
The campaign generated more than 15 million media impressions and more than $355,000 worth of free media through 41 broadcast and print stories, Aldrich says. All local TV stations ran the PSA at the same time during the 10 p.m. newscast and aired a feature about the prevention program. The campaign, she adds, also drew support to local anti-violence prevention programs such as Running Rebels, which saw a 75 percent increase in individual giving.
The campaign also had an impact on the crime rate, Chisholm believes. Combined with changes in community-based anti-
violence programs and policing methods put into place by Police Chief Ed Flynn, Serve had a part in reducing violent crime by 25.2 percent between 2007 and 2009. Chisholm says: “When you see the numbers come down, everyone gets credit
But no matter how effective Serve’s campaigns, Mueller’s critics are unlikely to be mollified. “Some people are always going to say bad things about you,” he says. “What you want to do is live your life so no one will believe them.”
In January, ads began to appear around town hyping a movie titled 2028, a teenage thriller. T-shirts were handed out, Facebook and MySpace pages were created, radio spots were aired and a music CD was released. Local theaters previewed a minute-long trailer, which also played on YouTube.
In the trailer, viewers see a series of quick scenes, dark and foreboding: A high school girl is seduced by an older man. He’s arrested. The teenager throws up in school. She gives birth to a boy. The baby won’t stop crying. As a teen, he gets into scrapes with neighborhood kids and in trouble with the police until, in the end, he’s led away in handcuffs, looking back at his tearful mother.
Two weeks later, a surprise message was added to the end of the trailer. A digital calendar races from the year 2010 to 2028, and a voiceover recites a warning: “Get pregnant as a teen and the next 18 years could be the hardest of your life.” Punked viewers are directed to the website babycanwait.com, part of a teen pregnancy prevention campaign.
Serve is on a roll. On the heels of 2028, the agency helped organize and promote a local benefit for Haiti that raised $30,000. It got the preliminary go-ahead for a new round of co-sleeping ads, brainstormed ideas for a Guitars for Vets program and launched a guerilla ad on National Teen Pregnancy Day. And in May, the Bristol Palin spot was aired on national TV, greatly boosting Serve’s reach.
Next on the list? A collaboration with Children’s Service Society on a foster care and adoption campaign, yet another impossibly complicated issue. Ideas already percolate in Mueller’s head: The day after Sandra Bullock won an Oscar for her role in The Blind Side as a suburban mother who takes in a homeless African-American teenager, Mueller pitched CSS this idea: Offer free tickets to the movie to couples interested in becoming foster parents, and load them up with information on foster care and adoption. The first event drew dozens to the Times Cinema and Fox Bay Cinema.
The ideas keep coming. Late for a meeting one day, Mueller pauses in the doorway of his office and rattles off his latest.
Idea one: As a campaign to combat childhood obesity, a fast-food chain could introduce an undersized menu. Smaller burgers, smaller portions of fries. Turn the “supersize” trend upside down.
Idea two: To cut down on drunk driving, park 50 wrecked cars alongside highways in the metro area. No signs to explain. Just a simple placard on the hood of each car bearing a number – .15, .18, .24 – the blood-alcohol content of the driver who caused the crash.
“This is the stuff I’m tortured by,” he says, the extravagant phrase hanging in the air.
Mueller often thinks about how his father lived his life. Now 67 and retired in the timber town of Crandon, Gary Mueller Sr. was a plumber with a wife and three kids. He was the sort of man who went out of his way to help people. When he came upon a poor soul lying drunk one night along a snow-blown highway, Mr. Mueller loaded him into the packed family car and drove to a hospital. And when the community turned a cold shoulder to a neighbor who was released from prison, Mr. Mueller invited him home for supper.
He helped people quietly, never for show, never for public recognition. It was just the right thing to do.
There is perhaps some irony that Gary Sr. was the classic unsung hero, and that his first-born son has delivered his service to others so publicly. But quiet advertising campaigns aren’t likely to succeed.
And so, quite unlike his father, Gary Mueller seeks to make the biggest splash he can. His fingerprints can be seen on everything he does. He trumpets causes with the loudest possible noise, marshalling his prodigal talent to live up to his father’s name.
Perhaps that adds to Mueller’s sense of urgency. He’s got the messages to make change. He sees the good Serve has done. But also the many opportunities that have been missed.
“I’m haunted every day,” he says, “by things we don’t accomplish.”
Kurt Chandler is a senior editor for Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.