Some of the most memorable messages presented by government, non-profit and even profit organizations include Smokey Bear, ’Iron Eyes’ Cody, McGruff the Crime Dog, crash-test dummies Vince and Larry, the United Negro Fund’s ’A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,’ and ’Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,’ are just a few of the more compelling public service announcements.
Some of the most memorable messages presented by government,
non-profit and even profit organizations include Smokey Bear, ’Iron
Eyes’ Cody, McGruff the Crime Dog, crash-test dummies Vince and Larry,
the United Negro Fund’s ’A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,’ and
’Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk,’ are just a few of the more
compelling public service announcements.
And these ’free’ messages are big business. In 1998, the Advertising
Council received an estimated dollars 1.2 billion in donated time and
space for its public service announcements. Radio and TV accounted for
about dollars 1 billion, with newspapers and magazines adding
approximately dollars 50 million.
The remainder included public service messages appearing on outdoor
billboards, bus signs, and on the Internet.
’There is no law which says a station must devote a fixed amount of time
to community organizations,’ notes Jeff Wurtz of News Broadcast Network
in Ridgefield, CT.
Broadcasters air PSAs because they fill the time they could not sell and
in the process, ’pad’ a show to its desired length. Likewise, newspapers
and magazines use PSAs as space fillers.
The first step in a successful PSA campaign is to have a specific goal
in mind when you create a campaign. For example, do you want to inform
the public - or a segment of the public - about a subject, do you want
to change behavior, do you want to generate calls to a hotline or simply
’Perhaps the single most important - and most often neglected task that
should be completed is pre-campaign research,’ says Bill Goodwill of
Goodwill Communications, in Burke, VA. To be successful, he argues,
organizations must learn all they can about the problem being addressed
in the PSA and the audiences being targeted for the message.
Given the volume of material received by public service directors, PSAs
compete for limited broadcast time or print space. According to a survey
by West Glen Communications, PSA directors tend to favor causes
important to society at large and relevant to local audiences.
Children’s issues (41%), local communities (36%), health (20%) and
safety (20%) were the most popular topics with stations.
Beyond the message itself, a number of other considerations must be
The material must be as professional as the print or broadcast ads that
may ’bracket’ your message. Also, make sure your message is timely and
sent in a user-friendly manner - radio and television stations use a
number of different length PSAs (30-second spots are most popular
according to the West Glen survey), and sending material in the wrong
technical format can be a waste of money. If a PSA is non-dated, 98% of
studios prefer a hard copy to satellite, says West Glen’s report. Note
also there is more airtime in the first quarter.
One traditional approach is to get a celebrity to present an
organization’s message. But Tim Bahr with Orbis Broadcast Group in
Chicago notes that a celebrity is particularly effective if he or she
has ’mass appeal’ and ideally, a personal connection to the topic. Greg
Jones, VP of Medialink, warns that ’celebrity spokespersons are good,
but if they are affiliated with one network’s series, it may be more
difficult for the other networks to air it.’
While PSAs are normally associated with non-profits, there is still a
place for profit organizations. Pharmaceutical companies with a new drug
for a particular disease or condition may team with a non-profit that
represents people suffering from that illness. ’The PSA usually tells
viewers if they have that illness that they don’t have to suffer and
that there are new treatments available,’ explains West Glen’s Annette
She also recommends that the non-profit organization endorse the PSA and
the media cover letter is written on the non-profit’s letterhead.
Measuring the success of a television PSA is done through various
services, although it adds to the cost. One approach, called SIGMA, adds
electronic data to television PSAs that can be retrieved by special
receivers across the country. SIGMA data provides information on when
and where the spot aired. Massaging the data can tell organizations how
many months the spot aired and if part of a campaign, which spot was
PSAs can gain major exposure. A Porter Novelli campaign for the National
Institute of Mental Health generated more than 10,000 airplays for a
message on anxiety disorders. News Broadcast Network reported that a
Salvation Army campaign reached more than 43 million Americans. And 98%
of children between the ages of six and 12 recognize McGruff the Crime
DOS AND DON’TS
1 Your research so your PSA achieves an identified goal for your
2 Keep it simple. The short length of PSAs means you must minimize the
points you want to make.
3 Send broadcast PSAs in different lengths and print PSAs in different
4 Establish an effective tracking system.
5 Try to localize your PSA, and a local number is often more effective
than a national toll-free one.
1 Forget that television PSAs must be sent in the format used by the
stations on your mailing list.
2 Distribute your PSAs at the wrong time of the year. If you have a
message such as swimming safety, make sure it can be aired in
3 Spend too little on your PSA. Remember that it may appear between
high-priced ads for nationally known companies.
4 Use a personality associated with oneTV network if your goal is to get
coverage on all TV networks.
5 Have unrealistic expectations. PSAs are broadcast or printed to fill
unsold time and space.