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PSA Myths

October 14, 2009

Having spent nearly 40 decades working in various aspects of the advertising profession – most of this time dealing with public service ads – we have heard just about every misperception about PSAs, many of which are disseminated by organizations which should do some research to get their facts straight. What caused me to write this latest post is that even Wikipedia, the wonderful on-line encyclopedia, doesn’t get it right when it comes to PSAs. For example, here is what Wikipedia says about the subject:

“In the United States, the granting of television and radio licenses by the FCC is contingent upon the station broadcasting a certain amount of public service advertising. To meet these requirements, many broadcast stations in America air the bulk of their required public service announcements during the late night or early morning when the smallest percentage of viewers are watching, leaving more day and prime time commercial slots available for high-paying advertisers.”

There are at least two mistakes in this paragraph. First, the FCC DOES NOT mandate that broadcast stations air a prescribed number of PSAs, with the exception of the Children’s TV Act, which applies to a very narrow topic. What the FCC requires is that stations must prove they broadcast in the public interest, and PSAs are one of many ways they prove they are doing so.

Secondly, and perhaps a more egregious error, is the statement that “the bulk of PSAs air during the late night or early morning when the smallest percentage of viewers are watching…”
A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation notwithstanding, (which was based on a very narrow sample) we have been evaluating PSA campaigns in every market in the U.S. for nearly three decades. For the past 10 years or so, our data source for TV PSA airplays is from the A.C. Nielsen company which has an electronic monitoring system to detect PSAs. To our knowledge, the accuracy of their data is beyond reproach.

Using Nielsen data as our source, a campaign we distributed for the Make-A-Wish Foundation shows that of the 37,461 airplays that were generated, half of them were used in the best dayparts – from 7AM to midnight. In another example, a campaign we distributed for the Catholic Campaign on Human Development, of the 28,464 airplays, 64% of them were used in the best dayparts. These two examples are very typical of the daypart dispersion for TV PSA usage.

It is exactly for this reason that we created the Public Service Advertising Research Center, and more specifically, the Frequently Asked Questions on that site, which can be accessed at

If a government agency is going to spend $5 million of our taxpayer funds on a national PSA campaign, or if a non-profit organization is going to use its donor contributions to fund a campaign, it seems to me they should do some research on the topic to find out what works and what doesn’t. Further, it seems to me they would want to know something about media usage patterns and what they can do to maximize the exposure for their issue or campaign.

Another example which shows that many PSA producers don’t know much about the topic for which they are creating expensive PSAs, is the spot lengths that get most frequently used. While it is counter-intuitive, our data shows, in one campaign after another where a 60-second PSA was included in the package, that :60s will get more airplay than a shorter length spot. Why is this important ? First, you can tell a more compelling story with a longer length message. Secondly, you can take longer to promote your call to action, i.e. call/write/visit a website. And finally, a :60 is worth twice the value of a :30 and four times the value of a :15. For most organizations, the value of the airtime generated is the most important determinant of success for a campaign, so this is not a minor point.

Our recommendation….do your homework. Talk to the media to find out what kind of issues they are airinig and supporting. Talk to other colleagues who have done PSAs and find out what they have learned. Most importantly, call a couple of distributors because they are the ones with their ear to the ground day in and day out and know a lot about what works. Oh, and lest we be guilty of self-promotion…visit our PSA Research Center, because if it is good enough for Google to rank it the number one unpaid citation when the words “public service advertising” are typed into the search string, we must be doing something right.

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