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“Parsing the PSA Effect”

December 20, 2008

A colleague sent me an article published in the Congressional Quarterly with the above title. Oklahoma congressman Rep. Ernest Istook ordered the Government Accountability Office to survey the scope and effectiveness of the federal government’s public service announcements. The GAO published the findings which are not very encouraging to we who produce, distribute and evaluate PSAs…but there is a reason for it which will be discussed below.

The auditing arm of Congress examined 105 PSAs produced from October 2002 through March, 2005, most of them addressing health and safety issues (which should get more exposure than any other type in our experience). According to the report, the campaigns cost the American taxpayers $152 million, or an average of $1.447 per campaign. According to the author of the CQ article, [some of the campaigns] “carry a distinct whiff of pop faddishness…” and he went on to say that a number of the other campaigns reviewed by the GAO were “extensions of lobbying mission statements…” or imparted meaningless information and he implies they should not have been created in the first place.

But here is where the story gets very interesting….according to the article, 57 PSA campaigns had not been evaluated for effectiveness. As a professional PSA evaluator – and we are not the only firm that does this work by any measure – why in the world would the U.S. government permit a PSA campaign to ever see the light of day without an evaluation component?

Moreover, how could any responsible government executive permit their agency to spend on average $1.45 million to create a PSA campaign without solid evaluation? I can honestly say that in the past 22 years of distributing literally hundreds of national PSA campaigns – and many of them for federal agencies – we would not think of doing so without an evaluation component. In fact, one of the reasons I started our firm in the first place is that evaluation was lacking in most PSA campaigns being distributed at that time.

Over all of those years we have been an outspoken proponent of PSA evaluation, and in fact, the tools to provide that service have become increasingly more accurate and sophisticated. It is absolutely unconscionable that any organization – non-profit or federal agency – permit a campaign to be distributed without knowing in detail the kind of exposure it is getting. To use federal, taxpayer funds to do it, in my view is almost criminal.

As it presently stands, the level of professional PSA campaign evaluation is almost as good as the evaluation systems used for commercial advertising and getting better every day. While we have had sophisticated tracking systems for broadcast TV for a number of years, there are a couple of companies who now offer electronic tracking for radio as well, and it is just a matter of time until someone figures out how to do it for cable TV which is now not monitored electronically.

Accordingly, we hope that the federal government will take notice that there are at least a dozen firms – including ours – which can offer these kinds of evaluation services and give the taxpayer what they should have – a good return on their tax dollar. And for those campaigns that should not be developed in the first place because they are inane, irrelevant or politically motivated, we hope the GAO and the Congress will hold federal government executives accountable for approving these campaigns in the first place. We would be interested in any thoughts that anyone else has on the subject.


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