With the Declaration of Independence celebrating more than 240 years, a national treasure turns forty. McGruff the Crime Dog first appeared in July, 1980, and he has become an enduring part of American culture. He stands as a symbol of the Declaration’s commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and the Constitution’s dedication to “domestic tranquility,” and his longevity is a reminder that the blessings of that domestic tranquility are for ourselves and our posterity.
When McGruff first came on the scene, his public service announcements told people that for more information, they could write to an address in Rockville, Maryland. Someone with a mind oriented towards the study of history, and American history in particular, always associates Maryland with the Carroll family, in this case Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration. As patriotic Americans, Carroll and McGruff have some important things in common.
In order to receive a Catholic education, Carroll’s family sent him to France, where he studied the works of Saint Thomas Aquinas. From Aquinas he learned that “peace is the tranquility of order.” Peace and order suited Carroll’s temperament, and Bradley J. Birzer, in his biography of Charles Carroll, American Cicero (2010), wrote that “Carroll’s mind and soul were as ordered as his estate.”
Of course, there is no getting round the sad fact that what made Carroll’s estate well-ordered was the sweat of the age-old and biblically sanctioned economy of slave labor. With gratitude we must acknowledge how we have moved beyond such barbarism, just as we humbly admit that as humans for whom the incarnate Son of God died, we are not defined by our negative traits, however atrocious.
What lasts beyond a tidy estate is an orderly mind and soul at peace. Here Carroll and McGruff can both point the way. “Ease may be natural to man,” wrote Carroll, “but elegance—the union of propriety with ease—must be acquired.” Carroll knew that the Latin word for business, negotium, was a negation of otium, easy leisure. Still, that sort of ordered peace also requires work.
McGruff made famous a phrase, “Take a bite out of crime,” and his point was that one by one, law-abiding citizens can work to reduce crime. McGruff and his famous words came from an advertising campaign that emerged from a time of national unrest. Racial tensions were at a breaking point, and crime ravaged many cities into looking like war-torn hellholes.
Enter the Ad Council, a public entity deriving from the War Advertising Council set up during the Second World War. It worked with a New York advertising agency, Dancer Fitzgerald Sample (since subsumed into Saatchi & Saatchi), to address the national increase in crime. An executive with that agency, Jack Keil, came up with the line, “Take a bite out of crime,” and then with the idea of an anthropomorphic bloodhound, wearing a tan trench coat, reminiscent of the one worn by Humphrey Bogart in 1946 when portraying a fictional private detective, Philip Marlowe.
Also in Keil’s mind was a contemporary television detective, Columbo, who in the 1970s became a popular and avuncular figure in a tan rumpled raincoat. As Wendy Melillo, author of How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America (2013), told The New York Times, “Successful advertising campaigns always have somebody’s finger on the pulse of popular culture,” noting that “at the time, Peter Falk’s Columbo was a very important piece of Americana.”
In his overcoat and sometimes with a cup of coffee, McGruff appeared on television and in print advertisements either as a cartoon superimposed on a live action scene, or as an actor in a costume. Precedent for such presentations went back to 1944, with the creation of the character Smokey Bear. In 2011 an actor portraying McGruff was arrested for possessing a thousand marijuana plants and a grenade launcher, and probably for that reason, now only members of law enforcement may wear the McGruff costume.
For most of McGruff’s on-air ads, Keil provided the voice. Keil died in 2017 at age 94, and his obituary in The New York Times characterized McGruff’s intonation as “the raspy sound of a detective who had just finished a long, sleepless stakeout.” As Keil described his vision of McGruff, “He wasn’t vicious, not tremendously smart, maybe, but he wasn’t a wimp, either,” adding, “He was a father figure, or possibly an uncle figure.”
In his initial appearances, McGruff encouraged citizens to take small, practical measures, “bites,” to decrease crime. He suggested forming neighborhood watches, as well as keeping doors locked and leaving a light on at night, preferably by the front door. Later, McGruff addressed issues such as drug abuse and kidnapping, and he educated kids about gun safety.
Rights to McGruff belong to the National Crime Prevention Council, and even though he has come into the twenty-first century with his own Twitter account, McGruff hit his stride in the 1980s. In 1984 McGruff was commemorated on a first-class United States postage stamp, and he went to the White House to meet President Ronald Reagan. In 1986 he featured in an episode of a CBS sitcom, Webster, where he addressed schoolyard bullying, and he appeared in an article in the April, 1988, issue of Smithsonian magazine.
Over his forty years, McGruff has become an instantly recognized persona. His lovability goes beyond the merry reactions of school children; after all, only criminals would be opposed to McGruff’s message. Still, as Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple wrote in Advertising in America: The First 200 Years (1990), the Ad Council tended to aid “causes for which there was already a general consensus,” but in so doing, its “slogans became a part of the national vocabulary,” including McGruff’s “Take a bite out of crime.”
Recently, The Babylon Bee lampooned people who want to defund the police, saying they feel unsafe because McGruff talks about biting, “and we don’t need more violence like that from law enforcement.” Such witty satire touches on a basic truth: Peace comes from victory, and victory comes from fighting the good fight.
Goodness in the fight is what Charles Carroll meant when he wrote, “without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time.” Defending our republic, McGruff exhorts us to live a good life, citizens’ morals defeating crime bit by bit and making every American more prosperous and more free.