Comparing Paid Vs. Donated Public Service Announcements
The communication literature reveals a dearth of information on the
benefits of using donated media strategies (PSAs) compared to paid strategies
(advertising). Only one empirical study has been published, which is Murry,
Stam, and Lastovicka's article "Paid- Versus Donated-Media Strategies
for Public Service Announcement Campaigns," found in Public Opinion
Quarterly (1996, Vol. 60, p.1-29).
Murry et al. note that PSAs have been debated for over four decades.
Some of the problems of PSA programs are that they rarely are able to emulate
more expensive practices used by consumer-products advertising campaigns.
One reason is because PSAs must rely on donated media rather than paid
media schedules. The authors state that some government marketers and charitable
organizations, such as the Red Cross, have examined the financial feasibility
of using paid-media schedules in fundraising. The findings are critical
because organizations may face an irreversible decision, because once the
media views them as "paid advertisers" it is possible the media
will no longer provide them with free time.
PSAs are believed to be problematic for several reasons, according to
Murry et al. First, campaign managers cannot control when, where, how often,
or even whether target audiences are exposed to PSA messages. Second, because
PSAs are played during times not bought by paid advertisers, much of the
media time does not reach intended audiences. Third, many PSA messages
have difficult persuasion tasks (such as behavior change), which require
message repetition in order to be effective.
Murry et al. cite another challenge to PSA success: the decreased availability
of donated media support. The media uses PSAs in time or space unsold to
paid advertisers. Therefore, PSA usage may fluctuate with the health of
the economy. A second factor influencing the amount of donated media is
the large number of competing "good causes." As the media rallies
around certain causes such as AIDS or drug abuse, exposure to other causes
may become more limited.
Paid media PSA campaigns have been blinded several ways, writes Murry
et al. Many government agencies at the federal and state level have budgets
for mass media expenses. In other communities, taxes may be levied to "demarket"
products with health risks, such as cigarette excise taxes. Third, corporations
often provide support for or launch their own PSA campaigns.
The authors recommend that public service planners measure the financial
costs and benefits, before deciding to use paid-media campaign strategies.
It is difficult to place a value on human suffering. Nonetheless, one can
measure the economic costs of a single traffic fatality, for example, which
is just over $2.6 million (including medical costs, property damages, legal
costs, etc.). Similar calculations can cost out health outcomes including
AIDS, smoking, or drug abuse. "Due to the high costs of some anti-social
behaviors, campaigns need change only a small portion of behaviors in order
to be cost-effective" (p.5).
Murry et al. designed a study to evaluate the effectiveness of donated-media
PSAs versus paid-media PSAs on the behavior of drinking and driving. They
implemented a six-month, on-air mass media campaign in three different
but comparable geographic sites. The campaign targeted 18-24 year-old males
primarily, and 15-24 year-old males and females as a secondary audience.
Wichita, KS served as the "paid-media" advertising campaign site;
Kansas City, KS served as the "donated-media" or PSA site; and
Omaha, NE served as the "control" site. Monitoring began one
year ahead of time to track any environmental changes such as citizen action,
law enforcement, and alcohol rehabilitation programs, which might change
the baseline attitudes and behaviors of the community.
In the paid site, $90,000 was spent on media time in TV, radio, newspaper,
outdoor and movie theater trailers. Two thirds was spent on television,
whereby spots were aired 183 times to the targeted audience. This level
of advertising was designed to be comparable to many new-product advertising
campaigns. In the donated site, the same materials were distributed as
PSAs. Public service directors were contacted monthly and encouraged to
donate time or space targeting 18-24 year old males. Monitoring of TV stations
showed that TV spots were aired approximately 100 times. Finally, the control
site received no campaign treatment.
The research measured pre- and post-campaign findings using two measures:
first, self-reported estimates of drinking-driving behavior, and second,
monthly counts of incapacitating motor vehicle accidents provided by state
departments of highway safety. The self-reported estimates were collected
through random-digit dialing telephone surveys of 18-24 year old males.
The accident data were analyzed for 57 months, including the 38 months
before the intervention, during the 6 month campaign, and 13 months following
the campaigns. For more details about the methodology, see Murry et all,
The results of the self-reporting dialing data showed that for both
the paid- and donated media sites, the percentage of males who reported
driving the previous month after consuming either four or six drinks went
down. In contrast, the control site showed an increase in drinking-driving
during the campaign period. For the group of males who had four drinks
and drove, the decrease in drinking-driving was statistically significant
at both the paid- and donated-sites, compared to the control site. There
was a lack of statistical significance in the drinking-driving after six
drinks at the paid- and donated-sites compared to the control site. These
findings show that both the paid- and donated-media campaigns were effective,
but that the paid-media campaign was no more successful than the donated
The accident data also showed that the average total of fatal or incapacitating
accidents for the 18-24 male population also went down at the paid and
donated campaign sites. Similarly, for the secondary audience of 14-24
males and females, accidents also declined in the paid (-18.9%) and donated
(-12.8%) sites. The control site declined also, but a lesser rate (-10.6-9%).
Statistical tests were run to verify that the decline in accidents were
not normal trends. For both sites, they found the decrease still to be
reasonably strong. They did find that the paid- and donated-media campaigns
were equally effective at reducing accidents in the primary target audience.
They also found that the campaign's effect was delayed and temporary. Within
two months after the campaign completion, accident numbers returned to
the baseline levels. According to the authors, this pattern is consistent
with advertising theory.
Murry et al. argued that the research shows both paid-media and free-media
PSA campaigns can positively influence important social behaviors. The
next step was to compare the two methods in terms of costs-to-benefits.
The researchers costed out the planning and evaluation research, message
production, and paid-advertising costs for each campaign and compared it
to the accident data. They found that the free-media campaign, over an
8-month period, benefited $13.52 per dollar spent on the campaign. (Actual
campaign cost $221,000 and economic value of 16.5 fewer accidents, as a
result, measured at $2,988,952 in economic benefit). They found that the
paid-media campaign benefited at $8.97 per dollar spent. (Actual campaign
cost $311,000 and economic value of 15.4 fewer accidents, as a result,
measured at $2,789,679 in economic benefit). The authors claim these are
conservative cost-benefit analyses, because they only measured decreases
in incapacitating accidents, and not less serious accidents which occur
Murry et al.'s findings defied conventional wisdom that paid-media would
outperform donated-media. The authors suggest three reasons for the results.
First, the excellent creative quality of the PSAs may have diminished the
need for higher message repetition. Second, because the target audience
was young males, the donated airplay which typically occurs in undesirable
broadcast times (i.e. "late night") may have been fortuitously
well-targeted. Third, the statistical methods were not able to measure
small differences between paid- and donated-media, which may exist.
Based on the research, the authors recommend that social marketers do
not abandon donated-media PSA campaigns for paid-media PSA campaigns. They
add three qualifications to the recommendation. First, to add credence
to the literature, their study should be replicated and cover more diverse
social problems and locations. Second, this campaign was exceptional because
it was able to take advantage of expensive research and planning practices
typically employed by paid-advertising campaigns. Further research should
examine how the expensive research and planning processes effect PSA campaign
success. Third, because many social marketing organizations are financially
weak, they cannot seriously consider switching to paid-media campaigns.
Thus, the authors state this question is better asked by larger government
programs measuring expensive health outcomes, or organizations such as
insurance companies who can afford to use paid-media campaigns and benefit
from them. Therefore, the authors' recommendation is not appropriate for