Understanding Public Service Announcements

You may know them as PSAs, but what's their purpose?

Manhole Cover Almost Covered with Asphalt - Public Service
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Unlike traditional commercials, public service announcements (PSAs) are primarily designed to inform and educate rather than sell a product or service. PSAs set about to change public opinion and raise awareness on important issues while disseminating information quickly and efficiently.

Also known as public service ads, examples of issues covered in these announcements include drinking and driving, texting and driving, drug addiction, and safe sex. PSAs are found anywhere traditional ads can be seen, including on television and radio, outdoor and online media, direct mail, and in print.

Although PSAs are often confused with public relations (PR), there is a significant difference between the two. PR typically promotes something for commercial purposes, while PSAs are grounded in educating people, typically from a nonprofit's point-of-view.

PSAs' History

The first PSAs appeared in the U.K. in 1938 through Public Relationship Films Ltd. World War II gave PSAs their first real platform as the British government wanted to support campaigns that touted optimism and encouraged the public to support the war effort in every way possible.

PSAs began similarly in the U.S. through a company founded in 1942 as the Advertising Council Inc., which was renamed the War Advertising Council Inc. in 1943 to support the war effort. In 1946, it reverted back to its original name and is known simply as The Ad Council.

Examples of Public Service Announcements

The most well-known and controversial PSAs of the last decade have been designed by the Truth Initiative with its "truth" campaign. Their guerilla-style ads and controversial street demonstrations have cut through the clutter to create a powerful message about the dangers of smoking. Truth advertisements are intended to be shocking, often using the "sledgehammer" approach to facts, but hitting people over the head with information that cannot be ignored. 

Thousands of PSAs have been developed over the years, and some messages have stood the test of time, even if the style and content is a little dated. Here are five that stand out:

  • I Learned It From Watching You: A dad comes into his teen son's bedroom and starts interrogating him about the drugs that he's found. At first, the teen is reluctant to tell him where he got the idea from. It seems like he's covering for his friends. Then, the bombshell comes out: "I learned it from watching you"—a harsh reminder that adults who use drugs influence their kids' behavior. 
  • Don't Die of Ignorance: AIDS is an epidemic that has gripped the world with fear. In the 1980s, the PSAs surrounding the disease grew scarier and more shocking as its impact began to take hold. Perhaps the greatest example of these was from the U.K. Titled "Don't Die of Ignorance," the enormous gravestone sent shivers down everyone's spines.
  • Keep America Beautiful: A PSA so famous, it was parodied in the smash hit film "Wayne's World 2." You probably recognize it, even if you weren't actually around for the original airing. In this TV and print campaign, the focus is on a Native American in the wilderness, and the damage to nature he sees unleashed from litter and pollution. The iconic "crying Indian" was born from this campaign. 
  • Brain on Drugs: Heroin's effect is catastrophic, and this PSA aimed to show that in the most shocking way. An egg is pounded by a cast iron skillet. That's your brain on drugs. The rest of the kitchen gets destroyed to show not only what happens to you, but how your family gets affected. Memorable, indeed. 
  • Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk: A truly innovative approach to the widespread drinking and driving problem, this strategy was clear. People who have been drinking don't make smart choices. But their friends, if they're clear-headed, are culpable if they let their drunk friends get behind the wheel.