Public service announcements (PSAs) emerged after World War II in the United States as a promising strategy for increasing awareness of important social issues and changing beliefs, attitudes, and behavior. Research at that time showed that PSA campaigns had limited success in changing attitudes and behavior. Even so, both in the U.S. and internationally, sponsoring agencies and organizations continued to produce PSAs, hoping they would create significant behavior change.
In the 1980s, a more informed view of what PSAs can achieve began to emerge as practitioners of social marketing demonstrated that media campaigns can produce behavior change when they are designed and executed according to the principles and best practices followed by the advertising industry. Beginning in the 1990s, PSA-based campaigns to promote public action through programs and policy change became more common. Research has shown that such campaigns can play a key role in shaping the public agenda, changing perceptions of social norms, reinforcing school- and community-based programs, and building support for and then publicizing changes in public policy, all of which can foster individual behavior change.
PSAs and other media executions are best designed using a planning scheme that is grounded in advertising best practices and behavior change theory and that uses those media executions as part of a broader intervention effort. These various elements can be brought together by using a media planning guide that outlines how the campaign will work in sync with other intervention activities and what its key messages will be.
In the United States, federal regulations that outlined broadcasters’ public service obligations were loosened in the 1980s, making it increasingly difficult to get donated time for PSAs and other public service messages. More broadly, the increased focus of broadcasters, cable networks, and print publications on generating revenue has magnified this problem. Faced with strong competition, campaign planners need a strategy for convincing media gatekeepers to give priority to their messaging.
The rise of social media (e.g., Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) has opened up a new means of putting PSAs before the public. For example, once a message is posted on a video-sharing website such as YouTube, it can be linked to the sponsoring organization’s website, where additional intervention-related material can be found, as well as to websites hosted by other groups. Promotional efforts through national, state, and community organizations can draw an initial audience, with the hope that they will share the link with their social media and email contacts and that eventually the message will “go viral.”
PSAs remain a viable media alternative for public communication campaigns, despite the fact that major media outlets do not often provide donated time or space for such advertising. In some cases, a PSA-driven campaign will be supported by a large budget, but while such campaigns have a better chance of success, the resources required are seldom available. The emergence of social media has created a new way to build an audience. Successful examples of social media campaigns are emerging, but why some campaigns take off and others do not requires additional study.