Like its successor, TNT was supported by voluntary contributions from local co-ops. The first print ad ran in early 1961 and the last in the early 2000s. The art for the 1961 ad was “Lone Dot,” a striking painting of nighttime in an electrified mountain village, the only one for miles around. It made its debut as a full-page ad in
Life magazine, one of the most popular news weeklies of that time.
One in a series, the ad was the big-ticket item in the media component of NRECA’s yearlong Silver Jubilee Celebration of 25 years of government-sponsored rural electrification. The Chicago Federated Advertising Club honored the series with its award for “best corporate image.” That summer, the NRECA board of directors decided national advertising should be an every-year thing, and TNT was born. The board stipulated that it be self-sustaining like the Silver Jubilee, funded with voluntary co-op contributions of 10 cents per meter. Of the nearly 900 co-ops in 47 states, 663 had contributed to the Silver Jubilee, and the board was counting on a similar level of participation.
“So, shortly you will be asked again to contribute to our continuing effort to create friendly understanding among our fellow citizens and help tell city neighbors that rural electrification is good for
all Americans,” read an editorial in
In another issue of
RE, TNT Manager Terry Gunn laid out the program components: national magazine advertising, small ads for co-ops to place in local newspapers, public relations materials to share with local print, radio, and television outlets, and billboard ads.
“Nationally circulated magazines provide the most economical and effective way to reach the largest possible number of fellow citizens,” Gunn wrote, and
The Atlantic and
Harper’s Magazine fit that bill better than Life. Even though they weren’t often seen on newsstands in small towns, “they reach a highly influential audience in need of the facts about rural electrification.”
A high percentage of their readers, Gunn continued, “are government leaders, or prominent in the fields of education, business, and the professions.”
These were the “opinion leaders” that Olson and others involved in TNT saw as their target audience.
The early years of TNT were about selling rural electrification as something that was good for the country and showing that “America’s rural electric systems,” the co-ops, were the good guys in the utility industry. Then in the early 1970s, with energy shortages causing economic panic in the U.S. and Europe, the program led with ads titled, “Are We Waiting for the Lights to Go Out?” and “The Case for a Nationwide Power Network.”
Before the end of that decade, TNT had moved on to overregulation, with a 1979 ad proclaiming that in just six years, government red tape had boosted the cost of building a coal-fired power plant from $150 per kilowatt to $900. “Who pays?” the ad asked. “The consumer.”
Go forward another 14 years, and TNT was buying space in major publications for ads carrying the theme, “How the Country Gets Things Done.” The one that appeared the first week of May 1993 told how the local co-op in Cherokee, Oklahoma, had helped raise $25,000 to get a restaurant up and running after the only other sit-down restaurant in town closed its doors. The tagline was “Small potatoes? Not for folks in Cherokee.”
Earlier that spring, TNT had strayed off this theme to defend co-ops after a media attack on the Rural Electrification Administration as an obsolete New Deal holdover. The ad asserted that “America’s economy counts on rural America” for food and raw materials. “FDR and the New Deal were right as rain. The REA is a good deal, for rural America, for all of America.”
For more than 40 years, TNT cultivated a national identity for “America’s rural electric systems” and, in a later wording, “America’s Consumer-Owned Rural Electric Co-ops.” It’s the broad shoulders on which the “America’s electric cooperatives” brand now stands.