OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

"Terrorism forces us to make a choice. We can be afraid. Or we can be ready."

With those words, Tom Ridge, the new American Secretary of Homeland Security, kicked off a multimillion-dollar public service campaign produced by the Advertising Council, the volunteer coalition formed by Madison Avenue during the parlous days of World War II.

The campaign for our own era of perilous fight was almost a year in the making, part of the Ad Council's response to the 11 September terrorist attacks. But, coincidentally, the commercials, print ads, billboards, brochures, toll-free telephone number and website - all centred on a theme of readiness - were introduced during a "level orange" national security alert, second only to the top rating of red, and a week after warnings about imminent, though unspecified, terror threats set off a frenzy to stockpile duct tape and plastic sheeting to seal off rooms from biological or chemical attacks.

Short of unveiling the campaign during an actual enemy attack, there seemingly could not be a better time to bring out public-education ads promoting the need to take precautions against terrorist threats. Indeed, the campaign, created by the Martin Agency, an Interpublic-owned shop in Richmond, Virginia, drew intense media coverage that perhaps was unprecedented for any Ad Council huckstering in peacetime.

There were articles in major newspapers on the day of Ridge's news conference, "front-running" what he was to announce, followed by prominent day-after coverage on front pages nationwide. Copies of the print ads illustrated many of the articles, and snippets of the spots were broadcast on almost every programme except American Idol.

In seeking to achieve that most tricky of tasks, persuading people to make substantive changes in how they behave, the campaign is as clever as any trying to make the much easier argument to switch from one brand of soap or soup to another. In the commercials, Ridge performs as the most reasonable of pitchmen, delivering the message with what The New York Times described as "a mix of authoritative weightiness and nonchalant folksiness".

In fact, Ridge seems to be channelling Arthur Godfrey, the radio and TV personality whose shrewd blend of down-home patter and preternatural media savvy lifted him to the peak of popularity in mid-century America.

(Godfrey was said to be the model for the demagogue played by Andy Griffith in the Elia Kazan film A Face in the Crowd.)

One spot begins with Ridge calmly comparing the making of plans in case of terror attack to "families in Florida preparing themselves for hurricane season" and "families in California preparing themselves for earthquakes".

Another spot ends with Ridge declaring with a smile: "We're asking America to be ready. And we will be ready." In a third spot, tellingly titled "simple necessities", he says: "There are a lot of things people can do before a crisis."

For those who find Ridge no bridge over troubled water, several commercials also feature New York City firefighters, policemen and other emergency workers.

The big worry is that the campaign runs the risk of being ignored if, after the recent skein of terror alerts that proved false alarms, Americans lose interest in yet more earnest advice. But better to cover your bases than to "duck and cover", as per the Cold War admonition, or even to cover with duct.