Public Service Announcement (PSA): Definition, Purpose & Guidelines

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Public Service Announcements create awareness about a topic of public interest. In this lesson, you'll learn more about what these advertisements are, their purpose and some general guidelines for compiling one.

Drinking and Driving

In the 1980s, a brief commercial was put together that showed two friends toasting with wine glasses. As the glasses get closer, the sound of squealing tires and an impending car wreck can be heard in the background until the glasses crash into one another, shatter and break. Toward the end of the commercial, as another collision is about to happen, a hand comes between the two glasses and prevents catastrophe.

That commercial, technically a Public Service Announcement titled ''Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk,'' was developed by the Ad Council to make people more aware of the dangers of drunk driving. Nearly 70 percent of the people exposed to the ad, according to the Ad Council, tried to step in and prevent an intoxicated friend from getting behind the wheel of a car.

You might remember one of the most common PSAs of all-time that simply involved a frying pan and an egg to demonstrate the power of drugs over the human brain. These types of advertisements have a special name and a very specific purpose.

What is a Public Service Announcement?

A Public Service Announcement, or PSA, looks similar to a television commercial but is designed to educate the audience about a particular topic instead of selling some type of product. The purpose of these ads is to generate awareness or create a shift in public opinion about something important such as drug usage, drunk driving, cancer check-ups or preventing forest fires. Public Service Announcements are put together and released by the Ad Council, a nonprofit education-based organization.

PSAs got their start before World War II when television and radio announcers would try to compel viewers and listeners to support the war effort. Messages like, ''Loose lips sink ships,'' helped to convey the importance of being supportive of the United States and its military. Today, PSAs have a slightly different look although they work by rousing emotion on topics ranging from texting and driving to the dangers of smoking. They may appear in most traditional advertising settings, including television, radio, billboards, print publications and even newer channels such as online advertising.

Despite the public interest they may serve, producing a PSA is not always a cheap endeavor. It still requires time, resources, equipment and capable workers to film, edit and assemble. And, once you've done that, there's no guarantee the PSA will even be published. Media companies aren't required to air or publish PSAs anymore. Because newspapers are shrinking and television commercials are more coveted and more expensive, PSAs may never be put in front of the public they were intended for. There is a competitive market for the few time slots allotted for PSAs. When they are aired or published, the media company holds all the power over when the PSAs are delivered to the audience. That means, your PSA could run at 3 a.m. and may never be seen by most viewers.

PSA Guidelines

Public Service Announcements must adhere to traditional advertising guidelines, which are set forth today by local broadcasting associations. In general, these rules should be considered:

First, PSAs must focus on a message of awareness or education. They are not to be used to promote a brand or advertise a particular product or service.

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