Yet spots still need to be both informative and targeted to garner the right attention.
Getting a PSA placed with a radio or TV station used to considered virtually a sure thing, especially if it dealt with a health-related issue.
But the combination of broadcast outlets cutting back on the amount of time they're donating for the public good, along with the increasing number of nonprofits now producing spots to raise awareness for an organization or cause, have gradually turned PSAs into a surprisingly competitive market these days.
The good news for health-themed PSAs is that both program directors and the general public still prefer them over nearly every other subject. "There is such a heightened sensitivity to health issues that, while getting messages out in general is increasingly challenging, delivering messages related to health can still find a receptive audience," notes Priscilla Natkins, EVP and director of client services for the Ad Council.
Of course that doesn't mean radio/TV program directors are willing to take any health-themed PSA regardless of content. "You really need to provide useful information - it can't be fluff," says Ray Salo, founder of San Francisco-based Salo Productions, who has been producing PSAs for three decades. "You also need good production values, because it's going to be run next to million-dollar commercials."
Matthew Smith, VP of client services at News Broadcast Network, says the best health PSAs take on issues that can potentially impact huge portions of the population, but may not necessarily be on the radar screen of many viewers.
"Program directors do want [PSAs] to be engaging, but also want something that reflects what their values are as a station," he adds. "That's why it can help to do research to see if a particular station has a public affairs charter that focuses on a specific health issue."
Even though many health topics can be very complex, Natkins says PSAs have to deliver messages in easy-to-understand language "It may be something like 'Autism is more common than you think - go here for more information,'" she says. "But you want to have a single, targeted message and then use your Web site to do the heavy lifting."
Natkins adds the most successful health PSAs manage to have a positive tone, regardless of the seriousness of the health or medical issues. "If your health PSA is exclusively doom and gloom, your audience will shut down," she says. "So your message needs to have a ray of hope. Let people know there are things that they can do."
Alan Aguilar, chairman of San Antonio-based marketing/PR firm Creative Civilization, notes that it's important to take into account different ethnic groups when crafting a PSA strategy.
Aguilar works with the American Cancer Society on a public service campaign aimed at both the Spanish- and English-speaking Hispanic markets. Launched last month, "Estamos Contigo," which translates to "We are with you," combines radio, TV, print, outdoor, and online, and aims to inform Hispanics about how user friendly the American Cancer Society can be as a resource.
Aguilar points out that far too many PSAs that are aimed at Hispanics are simply general market spots with a Spanish voiceover, adding, "It's important to be relevant not just with your message, but also with your casting, language, and music."
The only way to ensure this, he adds, is by using the same tools and methodology as you do when preparing to promote a commercial product. "Only by using solid research can you uncover insights into health issues as they pertain to different populations," he says.
Keep it simple - make sure health PSAs deliver one message in simple language
Invest in production values - remember your PSA needs to look good next to other ads
Keep it upbeat - health-themed PSAs need to offer hope
Use talking heads - health PSAs need more than someone talking to a camera
Be too commercial - avoid brand-building messages
Run 30-second spots only - radio and TV program directors want flexibility