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What is Public Service Advertising?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated May 16, 2024
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Public service advertising is designed to inform the public on issues that are frequently considered to be in the general best interests of the community at large. Typically, it reflects a political viewpoint, philosophical theory, religious concept or humanitarian notion. It is also commonly referred to as a public service announcement (PSA) or a community service announcement (CSA). The ads are usually broadcast on radio or television, but may also appear in newspapers or magazines. They are prevalent in industrialized countries throughout the world.

PSAs are commonly aimed at altering public attitudes by raising consciousness about particular issues. Health, conservation and safety themes are prevalent in many PSAs. The public service advertising campaigns are often sponsored by trade associations, civic organizations, non-profit institutions or religious groups. The U.S. military, in addition to paid advertising, regularly produces PSAs as part of their recruitment efforts.

Some PSA ads use celebrity spokespersons to garner attention. Others attempt to appeal to the masses through portraying risks and issues relevant to ordinary men, women and children. A common misconception about PSA work is that it includes political campaign ads, which are actually privately funded.

Most public service advertising involves joint efforts of the private and public sectors. Non-profit groups and government agencies commonly team up with private mass media, promotion and advertising firms to produce spots for radio, television and print media. Most commonly, the non-profit agency creates the message and an advertising firm develops the campaign, polishes it to meet industry standards and plans its distribution, all free of charge. Television and radio stations usually broadcast these ads at no charge, and magazines and newspapers customarily publish them for free as well.

In recent years, it has become commonplace for U.S. television stations to feature public service advertising spots immediately following a broadcast that has focused on an issue considered sensitive and of concern to many members of the general public. These PSA broadcasts generally offer addresses, Web sites and toll-free telephone numbers for information sources. Some of the topics focused on in the PSAs have included rape, child abuse, domestic violence, AIDS and civil rights.

Public service advertising was once a requirement for U.S. radio and television stations to receive their broadcast licenses from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The stations agreed to air a predetermined number of PSAs, which they would normally broadcast during off-peak hours to avoid interference with paid advertisements from sponsors. The deregulation of the broadcasting industry in the 1980s eliminated this obligation.

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Discussion Comments

By mutsy — On Jan 24, 2011

SauteePan - I agree. I think that this form of advocacy advertising is important because we underestimate the importance of some of these issues.

Many advertising strategy campaigns involve infomercials regarding abused pets with somber music in the background in order for us to see the results of what the abuse that these animals suffered has done to them.

They are designed to pull at our heart strings so that we donate to the cause. These are also very effective ads because we instantly feel sorry for the animals and almost feel guilty if we don’t contribute. This advertising marketing strategy is the most effective.

By SauteePan — On Jan 22, 2011

SurfNTurf- This shock form of therapy is very effective and actually should be used more often.

Some people feel that these ads are controversial, but I rather have a little bit of controversy and save someone’s life than taking these ads off the air and having people die as a result.

People especially young people don’t realize how impaired your reflexes become when you are engaged in another activity while driving.

By surfNturf — On Jan 20, 2011

GreenWeaver-I agree that when celebrities are used for public service employment people instantly listen.

When a person recognizes a familiar face on the television screen or on a billboard you will naturally look and at least hear or read the message. An average person probably would not receive that type of attention unless the ad was so shocking that you could not stop watching.

There was a recent campaign that set forth a series of driving while texting ads that demonstrated violent crashes that was horrific to watch.

These ads were effective because once you get the image ingrained in your mind it is difficult to forget about it.

By GreenWeaver — On Jan 19, 2011

Afterall-I agree. Public service advertisements service to educate us regarding issues of public importance.

For example, the public service announcement featuring Halle Berry talking about juvenile diabetes is really powerful because she offers a personal testimonial regarding the condition and even shares that her child is also afflicted with this condition.

Halle Berry’s celebrity and testimonials really shed light on this condition and offer hope to those that also suffer.

The public service announcement with Glenn Close discussing mental disorders such as bipolar show people that so many have this condition and they are not alone in their struggles.

She demonstrates that many people suffer from this condition and seeking help will aid in your development of your overall quality of life. This is an important aspect of a public service announcement because so often people feel isolated and feel that no one will understand them.

By afterall — On Jan 12, 2011

Some advertisers have begun copying public service advertising in order to trick or amuse consumers. While some ads like this can be funny, some can be really tasteless. While public service marketing can sometimes be awkward or depressing, mocking it for something like a beer ad is just rude, in my opinion.

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