Creating PSAs that really talk to teens

Online elements are now a necessity for PSA efforts to truly impact teenagers.

Online elements are now a necessity for PSA efforts to truly impact teenagers.

With the number of US teens who go online set to jump to 22 million by 2008, according to Jupiter Research, online add-ons are more important than ever for successful PSA campaigns.

As a result, PSA pioneers like the Ad Council are tinkering with new techniques to reach this audience.

The Ad Council, working with agency J. Walter Thompson, leveraged the Internet to add layers of interactivity to its Boost campaign targeting potential high school drop-outs.

Boost is an integrated PSA effort, with TV, radio, outdoor, video game, and Internet advertising components. However, the actual content is driven by stories of real teens struggling to make it through high school, recorded by themselves on digital cameras furnished by the Council.

At, visitors can follow their stories, with an annual "Class of 2006" wrap-up depicting those who made it, as well as those who didn't.

"The whole idea of Web 2.0 is to create relationships," says Barbara Shimaitis, SVP of interactive services at the Ad Council. "You need to find ways to use the technology to engage the audience in dialogue."

Shimaitis suggests soliciting the advice of agencies and service providers, as well as reaching out to the major online players.

For instance, as it says on its site: "Google Grants provides eligible organizations with in-kind keyword advertising using Google AdWords so you can connect directly with your target audience."

Message boards, surveys, blogs, celebrities, and contests are other tactics to incorporate into campaigns. Then there are seminars, studies, and shows to attend, such as "What Teens Want," a conference in New York held in June, sponsored by Adweek Group, Billboard, and The Hollywood Reporter.

Still, for this demographic, nothing is stickier than an element of online gaming.

Working with the US Department of Agriculture, Porter Novelli launched the MyPyramid Blast Off interactive classroom game and a broad range of curricula materials for elementary school teachers to introduce new nutrition guidance to students.

"It was our sense that if a game was developed effectively, it could both interest and educate students, as well as be easily incorporated into a curriculum," says Adam Burns, research manager, Strategic Planning & Research, at PN.

To make sure the resource would be accepted as envisioned, Burns organized a series of focus groups among teachers and another set among students, establishing firm criteria for the game developers. At present, PN estimates there are about 5 million hits each school day.

It needn't always be fun and games, especially when dealing with more sensitive topics. For example, MultiVu helped develop a PSA educating teens on the dangers of abusing inhalants for The National Inhalant Prevention Coalition and its agency R&J Public Relations.

To develop clips that would truly resonate, instead of a celebrity - which can certainly work with this crowd - they used Jeff Williams, a police officer from Cleveland who had lost his son Kyle to inhalant abuse.

Alison Welz, director of media relations at MultiVu, says that because of his firsthand experience of the devastation caused by this growing trend, Williams became the spokesperson for the campaign, which makes for compelling viewing online for both teens and their parents.

PSA producers still must remember, however, that teens are still watching plenty of TV. Nielsen Media Research reported that despite the growing competition from new media, during the TV year ending September 17, teens ages 12 to 17 viewed 3% more traditional television than the previous year.

So while they may be spending 27% more time online each month - 26 hours and 48 minutes in September 2006, as opposed to 21 hours and 4 minutes the same month in 2003, according to Nielsen - an integrated mix of broadcast and Internet should maximize results.

Technique tips


Hold focus groups to see what will work

Find out what programs major Internet companies have for PSA dissemination

Update the site and stay on top of the technology for an enhanced user experience


Underestimate teens' intelligence. They're well-informed

Lose sight of your target audience and their current interests

Make things up. Use real stories from real people to get your point across

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