PSAs: DO THEY REALLY WORK?

by Bill Goodwill

Editor's note: The following article has been updated with newer information since it was originally published in The Capitol Communicator Newsletter.

"They get relegated to junk time when no one is watching or listening."

"They're only suited for creating general awareness-they don't motivate the public to take action or allow us to correlate PSA usage with our organization's critical mission."

"They're expensive, and there's no way to determine their return on investment."

"The numbers we are seeing can't be real."

These misperceptions about PSAs, and public service advertising in general, are just a few that have floated around government agencies and non-profit organizations for years.

To paint a more balanced picture of PSA effectiveness, Goodwill Communications has been analyzing PSA usage data resulting from over 800 national PSA campaigns which we've evaluated in the past thirty years. Following is a summary of our findings, as they pertain to the questions raised above. Because the quality and source of our data is much more reliable for broadcast TV, than other media (the A.C. Nielsen Company), we are going to focus our responses on that medium

Usage by Daypart

As for being broadcast during "junk time," one of the great features of the A.C. Nielsen SpotTrac monitoring system is that it breaks all PSA usage data out by daypart (the times during the 24 hour reporting cycle when PSAs were used). If we look at daypart usage from one campaign to another, it is fairly consistent with the majority of PSA usage in the better dayparts, and typically only 25-30% usage in the so-called "junk time" of 1AM to 5AM.

This graph shows a typical array of TV PSA usage by the six different dayparts reported by Nielsen, which clearly shows that most TV PSAs are used in the better dayparts.

Eliciting Response

Next, there's the question of motivating the public to take some type of action. Here again, if the campaign is properly designed with a toll-free telephone number, or a website URL that stays on screen long enough (a very good rationale for always creating a sixty-second PSA, allowing more time to register the call-to-action), the data suggest PSAs can be effective. Rather than restate the details here, you can go to: www.goodwillcommunications.com to see several examples of how PSAs have been effective in helping non-profits generate the desired actions to support their critical mission.

Expensive/Not a Good Return on Investment

Regarding the question of expense, PSAs can be big budget extravaganzas, or they can consist of distributing your TV PSA on our shared reel distribution service called CablePAK, which costs $8,500 and returns on average $861,212, an ROI of 100 to 1.

Upon occasion, we are asked to recommend a low-cost, high impact production company which can achieve outstanding results. One of these producers was a talented creative director whom we met in doing work for another client. Before recommending him to our client, I checked his work thoroughly and it was among the best I have seen in my 40 year career in mass communications.

He produced a TV and radio PSA for our client, in English and Spanish, for just over $40,000. According to a survey conducted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies, the cost to produce just one thirty-second commercial in 2011, was $354,000, before any commissions or markups. He created some beautiful, engaging and poignant PSAs about a very difficult human affiliction - Alzehiemer's.

Following is a graph of what those PSAs have generated in terms of advertising equivalency value.

The cost-benefit ratio from this campaign is 173 to 1, when you compare the production and distribution costs to what was generated in value. It clearly shows is that you do not have to spend a fortune to create a great PSA campaign that scores well with the media, if you get the right producer.

The Numbers We Are Seeing Can't Be Real.

Having developed the very first evaluation software for PSA campaigns in 1981, even before the emergence of the Nielsen electronic monitoring system for TV PSAs, we also hear about PSA usage data that can't be real, and we wished there was something that could be done about it.

On our blog and in workshops and articles, we have been advocating for uniform evaluation standards among all PSA distributors. However, the competition for getting new PSA clients is so intense in our field, that no one really wants to develop a uniform methodology for reporting PSA usage. To do that, might reduce the numbers they report, and if one is trading in inflated numbers, then that becomes their stock in trade, and their competitive advantage.

The problem emanates from the fact that there is no single reliable source for PSA data. We who distribute and evaluate campaigns, have to deal with at least a half dozen different sources for PSA usage data, which range from spotty, to non-existent. As a result, all PSA distributors figure out a way to come up with the numbers they must have to plug into their client reports. Some of us try our best to get credible data; others just make up the numbers on the fly.

For example, we know of one PSA distributor which claims they get their evaluation data from the National Association of Broadcasters. I guess they never thought that it would be so easy to check on that claim, which of course we have done. NAB clearly told us they do not have or provide that kind of data, so that begs the question of where they are getting their data. Throwing darts at a dartboard with numbers on it comes to mind.

What Really Counts

If we controlled the world of PSAs and public relations, we would totally do away with Gross Impressions, because they are, for the most part, huge, indefensible and meaningless numbers. We would replace them with data that:

  • Supports your organization's critical mission, i.e. generating more awareness, which gets converted into more donations
  • Attracting volunteers, and getting those volunteers to recruit others
  • Getting more people to visit your website, writing for literature
  • Participating in your special events
  • Other specific actions which take people on the long journey to behavior and attitude change

We would also do a much better job of demonstrating how PSAs help you reach your Key Performance Indicators, sometimes referred to as "KPIs," which are of course different for every non-profit.

Our limited space with this article does not permit us to delve deeply into how an organization can use PSAs to demonstrate the connection between PSA exposure and meeting their critical mission, but the articles below provide more background.

And if I were the director of communications for a non-profit organization, I would overwhelm my board or management with all kinds of very solid data on PSA effectiveness - data I could defend. But, there would be one large number that would never be mentioned: Gross Impressions. They simply do not pass the snicker test, and in our view, have no part in credible evaluation reporting.

Resources

On the Goodwill Communications homepage, you can view 12 different mini-case histories that demonstrate how PSAs helped various organizations achieve a particular communications objective. Go to: www.goodwillcommunications.com

For an article that describes how PSAs were used prior to social media and how many organizations are using social media to achieve their objectives, go to: www.psaresearch.com

To read an article that shows how PSA evaluation data can be used to help support organizational objectives, go to: www.psaresearch.com

An article that demonstrates that TV PSAs targeted to teens can significantly reduce their marijuana use, can be viewed at: www.psaresearch.com

An interview with Bill Goodwill and PR News on the factors that make for a successful PSA campaign can be viewed at: www.psaresearch.com

Dr. Jack Jorgens, who specializes is implementing Hispanic PSA campaigns provides his insights in an article "What Makes a Successful PSA Campaign?" www.psaresearch.com

Ruth Wooden, the former President of the Ad Council discusses the topic of PSA effectiveness, over time at: www.psaresearch.com

A professor, Dr. Garrett J. O'Keefe of the University of Wisconsin-Madison served as the principal investigator for evaluating the effectiveness of PSAs. www.psaresearch.com

A research study conducted by the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) concluded that PSAs can induce significant changes in public health behavior. www.psaresearch.com

An author whose professional credentials cannot be ascertained, wrote an article which we posted to our PSA Research Center entitled: Ten Commandments of PSAs which can be viewed at: www.psaresearch.com

Another author whose article is entitled: PSAs Effective In Getting Out The Message was originally published by the Non Profit Times and is available at: www.psaresearch.com

This article that pertains to PSA effectiveness has to be one of my favorites titled: Don't Make Your Bath Water Too Hot and Keep Your Dogs Away From the Antifreeze which can be viewed at: www.psaresearch.com

(Updated 3.18.14)