In 2023, the American PSA turned 75 years old and it is more active than ever. For example, last year, television stations and networks aired more PSAs than at any other time in history. Let’s take a look at what PSAs are all about today.
What is a Public Service Announcement?
A Public Service Announcement (PSA) is a message delivered to the public using free, donated advertising time and space. PSA announcements, are awareness messages that can take many forms. They can air on television and radio, appear in newspapers and magazines, be presented on billboards, mass transit posters, and even appear on streaming CTV and as internet digital ads.
In short, a PSA isn’t defined by its format, but by the content of the message. To qualify as a PSA commercial, the content must be in the public interest and used to raise awareness about an important topic. Remember the old, “This is Your Brain on Drugs” campaign from the 80s? That campaign by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America focused on the public-health goal of sharing the dangers of drug use.
Unlike a standard commercial, which usually aims to sell a product or service, PSAs promote an idea or share vital information. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the CDC created a number of campaigns about the disease, it’s prevention, and treatment options. Today we’d like to focus specifically on TV PSAs.
The Beginning of PSAs
The history of PSAs stretches back to the Civil War when both sides used newspaper ads to sell war bonds. During World War I, posters bearing the famous “Uncle Sam Needs You” tagline were used to recruit soldiers to fight in Europe. Then, in World War II, messaging like “Loose Lips Sink Ships” reminded members of the public how to keep service members safe. These posters were well-known and effective, but they were just the beginning.
J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do It!”, also called “Rosie the Riveter” after the iconic figure of a strong female war production worker. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:We_Can_Do_It!_NARA_535413_-_Restoration_2.jpg
TV PSA came along in 1948 when millions of television sets started to find their way into American households. The War Advertising Council, which had put out many of those early PSA posters, became the Ad Council that pioneered the TV PSA.
Some of the most famous messages in the history of advertising came out of this organization, including:
- “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” (for the U.S Department of Transportation)
- “A Mind Is a terrible Thing to Waste” (for the united Negro College Fund)
- “This is Your Brain on Drugs” (for the Partnership for a Drug Free America),
- Smokey the Bear (for the U.S. Forest Service).
These advertisements were effective and memorable. They entered popular culture and became the templates for future PSAs.
Who Uses TV PSAs Today?
Nonprofit organizations, associations and government agencies use PSAs to raise awareness of their missions and deliver their messages to large viewer audiences. Even today, this is something that broadcast television does better than any other medium.
This wide reach, combined with the free, donated advertising space from stations and networks makes it is easy to understand what makes the use of PSAs so attractive. In 2022 for example, it is estimated that television stations alone donated over $3 billion in ad time to air PSA messages.
Stations and networks do this for three important reasons:
- To use unsold inventory. Stations have learned that it is better to give this time away rather than drop their prices and flood the market with heavily discounted inventory, which can hurt their ability to sell their full price inventory.
- For compliance reasons. Stations and networks operate under licenses provided by the federal government and are required to demonstrate every quarter that they are operating in the public interest. One way they can do this is to air PSAs.
- To win viewers and increase loyalty. Running PSAs helps stations and networks demonstrate that they are good public citizens that care for the welfare of the communities they serve.
These three reasons taken together mean that both TV stations and nonprofit organizations benefit from the use of television PSAs. Donated air time cuts down on the cost of sharing the message and also allows organizations to reach a wider audience than they might be able to afford with a paid placement.
Television Plus Technology: How PSAs Work Today
In the early days of television, organizations mailed video tape copies of their PSAs to stations. As technology evolved, the method for delivering PSAs changed too. Like many industries, TV stations have gone digital. A company called Extreme Reach developed a technology that allowed it to deliver broadcast commercials via the internet directly into the operations systems of stations. They captured a greater than 80% share of ad delivery in the United States using this method.
The Ad Council and Connect360 were among the first organizations that first moved to this new way of distribution. Today every PSA distribution by Connect360 is sent this way.
Tracking PSA Performance Is Essential
Just like any other form of advertising, PSA performance needs to be tracked to measure return on investment. But, stations and networks do not share information on their airing of PSAs with distributors. Organizations rely on Nielsen for this information. The measurement firm has been the sole source of PSA airing data since it first developed technology in the 1990s. Connect360 receives information from Nielsen every morning on the date, time, and station of each PSA airing.
To know how many viewers watched a PSA, Connect360 licenses the entire Nielsen audience database using Nielsen’s television rating service. This allows its Pinpoint reporting system to determine the number of viewer impressions each PSA airing received. Connect360 has even worked with Nielsen to develop special techniques to calculate impressions from stations and networks where they are not readily available.
Using data from the marketing research company SQAD, Connect360 is able to calculate the dollar value of each airing Nielsen detects. Connect360 is one of a select number of companies that have access to this data, which includes monthly information on what the major media buyers of broadcast television and radio actually pay for advertising time. This allows us to provide our nonprofit clients with the earned media value and return on the investment to run a PSA campaign.
In recent years, the accounting profession started requiring nonprofit organizations to disclose the value of the free airtime they received from stations and networks (known as in-kind donations) on their audited financial statements. Since Connect360’s founding partner and president is a CPA, Connect360 became the established leader in compliance with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) and the valuation requirements issued by the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB).
Get the Ultimate Guide to Public Service Campaigns
For a more in-depth look into public service announcements, their placement and reporting, download the Ultimate Guide to Public Service Campaigns 2023. This free guide goes beyond the basics of what is a public service announcement to offer an inside look at how PSAs can help nonprofits and government agencies meet their awareness marketing goals. You can also request a copy at https://c360m.com/lets-connect/.
About The Author
Steve Edelman is a Partner and President of Connect360. He is a leading expert on the measurement, valuation, and financial reporting of Public Service Announcements by not-for-profit organizations.
About Connect 360
Connect360 is a leading media placement agency driving measurable results for some of Charity Navigator’s highest-ranked nonprofits, well-known associations, government agencies and public relations/marketing firms.