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United We Stand

October 14, 2009

This is going to be a long post, so for all of you (if anyone even reads my meanderings) who want a quick fix to a complicated issue, click the ‘go away’ button now.
Most likely via our PSA Research Center, which stimulates a fair amount of inquiry regarding public service advertising and related issues, I received an email recently from a young reporter in China. She asked some very good questions which we will eventually post to our FAQs so others will have the benefit of the exchange.

One of her questions had to do with the regulation of the broadcast industry by the FCC and I explained things to her as best I could. To reinforce my response, I went to Wikipedia, only to discover that this most trusted source was giving out erroneous information in terms of what the FCC mandates. I haven’t taken the time to try and correct Wikipedia yet, but for more information on that topic, go to our post below.

It is very interesting to note that other countries have a robust PSA “industry,” and that their intellectual curiosity about public service advertising seems to surpass ours. I say that because the only book that we are aware of dedicated to the subject is titled: “Public Service Advertising – Some Issues and Campaigns.” Guess where it is published…in the U.S., which invented the advertising industry? Nope…India. We were asked to write a couple of chapters in the book and one of them can be accessed at

One could argue that recruiting posters from the Revolution were a form of public service advertising. Unquestionably the widely-read pamphlets of Thomas Paine called Common Sense, advocating our independence from England, were a form of PSAs. Yet in spite of this, there is so little written about such an important subject.

One of the best coffee table books about advertising was published by Advertising Age, called Advertising – the First 200 Years in America. If you make it towards the back of this wonderful book, which tells about a force that helped to shape America’s economic landscape, there is a chapter titled: Causes – Advertising in the Service of the Community. It is disappointing that this important chapter was placed towards the back of the book – almost a footnote – after 15 previous chapters dedicated to selling goods and services.

As an indication of how big this “industry” is, the National Association of Broadcasters tells us that the amount of public service airtime donated by their member stations amounts to $10 billion, and that is only from the broadcaster perspective. No one knows how much the feds and the non-profit world spend on PSAs.

Perhaps more importantly, no one knows how much is misspent on campaigns. Read our post below how the government spent $82.5 million on 57 campaigns funded by U.S. taxpayers that had no evaluation component. In other words, organizations were given, on average, nearly $1.5 million per campaign to spend as they chose, without any reporting requirements whatsoever. As a professional PSA campaign evaluator, we find this to be beyond irresponsible, with respect to taxpayer expenditures.

What we do know is that the federal government hands out contracts to the Ad Council without competitive bidding, which the last time we checked, is illegal. And guess who put a clause in a bill currently in circulation stipulating that the Ad Council should be given a contract? Congress itself…the institution that makes our laws. Now, lest anyone take me to task for bad mouthing the Ad Council, that is definitely not the case. They are a fine organization with a long history of advancing important public service issues.

However, the U.S. government has contracting regulations and laws that we must all abide by, except if you are fortunate enough to be the Ad Council. Why is this important? If there is no competition for a public education contract, then how do we know that the contractor costs are fair and reasonable? How about all the other smaller mom and pop businesses who struggle to get on the GSA Schedule to try and compete for contracts, when our lawmakers are handing out contracts to organizations with a strong lobbying presence in Washington?

There is also no organization dedicated to the field of public service advertising, or anything close. There used to be something called the National Broadcast Association for Community Affairs, comprised of public service directors from mostly major market TV stations. I was fortunate enough to serve as the chairman of its non-profit affiliate called the Partners in Public Service. It helped non-profit and federal agency staff meet broadcasters on a personal level at least once a year. It also provided a venue for exchanging best practices, and sadly met its demise some 7 years ago, which is another story.

There are also no evaluation standards governing the PSA industry to permit producers and distributors to compare results from one campaign to another using meaningful metrics. If we generate $10MM in ad equivalency value using reliable data sources, and another organization reports $100MM in value using questionable sources – or worse yet cooks the books – shouldn’t that be a problem in terms of credibility for our business? Lawyers, architects, CPAs, the public relations and advertising professions have standards, but there are none governing the public service business.

Finally, the more societal problems we have, the more we need an organization to help lobby Congress for more funding of important social campaigns. Our history is replete with examples of how well- funded public education campaigns can help change attitudes and behavior towards important social issues. What we need now is for all of us in our business to work together for meaningful change, instead of being independent voices in the wilderness.

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