10 Commandments of PSAs
by John Paul Kowal
Often, PSAs alienate the audience by instilling guilt, confusing, or
leaving a ho-hum impression, but this need not happen if you observe these
do's and don'ts!
Radio and television public service announcements (PSAs) too often are
the product of a local station's good will and eager personnel from professional
Personnel from these service agencies may be anyone from an administrative
assistant or social worker to a staff director or volunteer. They represent
organizations ranging from traditional united fund agencies, nonprofit
corporations supporting community activities, groups advocating support
for disadvantaged individuals, to organizations seeking establishment of
a home for local theater or some other arts activity.
Service agency personnel responsible for PSAs usually lack media experience
and understanding. Often organizational tunnel vision has created messages
that are important only to that organization and are not interesting, persuasive
PSAs with ineffective messages violate what I call the Ten Commandments,
of Public Service Announcements. While Federal Commission regulations
require broadcast stations to operate in the public interest, the moral worth of a message will not compensate
for a poor or confusing presentation.
An informal anecdotal, survey of PSA aired on one large media market
revealed that they all violated at least two, if not or more, of the following
- Those Shall not Bore Thine Audience. Most of the PSAs viewed lacked
any dramatic presence, contrary to viewers normal media expectations. They
used the old bush-shot, look-straight-into-the-camera, and blurt-out-your-message
techniques. In many cases, viewers have a negative reaction to the poor
presentation. Blandness creates a PSA that blends with all other poor PSA
line dull indistinguishable, and unimportant to the viewer.
- Thou Shall Not Instill Guilt. The not-so-subtle slam techniques, well
developed by some, is a terrific for the audience, intended or not. The
message is simple: your lack of support will cause a catastrophe. The guilt
isn't even implied; it's right up front and glaring. Let the audience try
and sleep with that.
- Thou Shall Not Be Neglectful. Neglect is a sin that results in a poor
presentation, inadequate on-camera talent, or insufficient organization
-- leading to poor quality PSAs that distract and annoy the audience. These
PSAs also neglect the intended service population. The concept, idea, message,
and their presentation are the responsibility of the social service agency
that wants the air time in the first place.
- Thou Shall Not Cause Motion Sickness. Motion sickness in PSAs is a
diseased characterized by jumping from point to point, with no rationale,
or connection, creating a piece that impossible to understand or follow.
Motion sickness reflects poor thought process by it's creators, and leaves
the viewer bobbing like an untethered buoy.
- Thou Shall Not Stuff Thy PSA. Stuffing is the sin of service agency
personnel presenting too much, too fast. The thought is that you only have
one shot at it, so get it all in -- even if it amounts to the contents
of a very long book. A 350-page book can not be compressed into a 30-or
60-second spot. Several years ago the 30-second spot constituted 84 percent
of all telecast spots. That is figure is probably higher today due to the
rising cost of TV time. The 10-second spot is also coming back for the
same reason. In these short spots the message must be clear and to the
- Thou Shall Not Deliver a Counterproductive Message. A counterproductive
message is delivered when an example is used that is far from the norm.
The example, while true, states up a false and misleading set of expectations
for the audience, because the example is not representative. A recent public
service print campaign for the employment of the handicapped cited a blind
man who had been elected as a justice of the supreme court. Shall all blind
citizens be measured by that example? Why not ask blind people what message
they want delivered? Here you see the effects of the agency tunnel vision
and professional issues that are not directly relevant to the audience,
and in this example possibly not even relevant to those served.
- Thou Shall Not Omit Important Information. This sin is just the opposite
of the Fifth Commandment. Service professionals get caught up in the feeding
frenzy that accompanies the excitement of being at a TV or radio studio.
In the mystification of the media and the excitement at the station, they
omit portions of their message. Sometimes it is as little as where to go
or call if you are interested in the problem. Often it is that final detail
that will enable an interested viewer to act. Without that detail any action
is eliminated. Worse yet, there are some PSAs that leave off the tag line
and the audience never finds out what is expected of them.
- Thou Shalt Not Distort Thy Message. Distortion is the road sign to
irrelevancy. It is usually the product of agency tunnel vision or professional
concerns, neither of which is of interest or importance to the viewer.
The distortion is traceable to the private priorities of the sponsoring
agency or organization. One PSA stressed the need for court reform, but
the content of the PSA dealt with internal administrative matters, paper
traffic, court clerks and other areas of little interest and possibly of
little consequence to the public. The spot never tied any of these issues
into a major public interest -- the court as an effective vehicle to serve
in the administration of justice and the punishment of the guilty.
- Thou Shall Not Cloud Thy Message. Clouded messages almost always leave
the impression, lacking any other clear-cut message, that your hat is in
your hand and the non-explicit message is fund raising. Fund raising, in
our opinion, is probably the poorest use of a PSA. In these hard times
people are not going to give to something that they don't see as important
to them. What was your message? Did you really want to solicit funds? Is
this the best way? If fund raising was not your message, it's time to start
- Thou Shall Not Be Constipated. Constipation in PSAs is a sin characterized
by no discernible message. The audience is left saying, "What was
that all about?" Worse yet, they may say, "So what?" If
there was anything there it didn't come across. Was there anything there?
These Ten Commandments represent simple guidepost that identify problem
PSAs. The problems represented in all ten have a common foundation -- they
never took the audience into consideration.
These common basis for problem PSAs is aggravated by poor thought processes.
Usually, staff numbers are assigned to develop a PSA addition to their
regular duties. They are satisfied with PSA when they see themselves, their
executive director or chairman on TV. For many, the PSA is an end in itself.
Does this mean that a successful PSA must use computer animation, high-cost
graphics, exotic visuals, and specially composed jingles?
The answer is no. Effective PSAs are possible using limited resources.
To be effective a PSA should be short, relevant to the audience, interesting
or entertaining, and have goal that can be summarized in one declarative
sentence. The relevant message must be actionable we mean that the desired
response form the audience must be responsible and within their means.
To create a successful PSA you must make a commitment to the time necessary
for the entire process, have the creative staff with the talent and training
necessary to develop a PSA, identify your intended audience, tailor your
message, rehearse for a final product that is smooth, organic and complete,
and be graceful, gentle, persuasive, and interesting in your execution.
Remember, the audience will judge your message by the same critical
standards they apply to commercial advertising. In short, your message
must be professional.
To get an idea of how successful your PSA is, find a representative
group from the intended audience and screen the PSA for them. Can they
tell you what your message is? If so, that's success.