STAND Lesson 2: Understand The Genre Of Public Service Announcements

"Because we are less likely to be manipulated by a message that warns us that it is manipulating us, producers of commercials try to incorporate an identifying tag in an inconspicuous way."

--Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Karlyn Campbell, The Interplay of Influence, 4th edition


What is a Public Service Announcement?

Public Service Announcements (PSAs) are a type of advertising. Understanding the elements that make this type of advertising effective is an important process of creating an effective PSA. The quote cited above points out that commercials should try to involve the viewer in the persuasive message while delaying the presentation of information that identifies the message as persuasive. Any sample of commercials or PSAs will shows this technique in action. Discuss with students the claim that people are less likely to be manipulated by a message when they are aware of its persuasive intent. When is this true and when is it not? What examples can be used to support or refute this claim?


Watch a sample of public service announcements and have a discussion to develop a long list of all the elements that they have in common. For example:

1. Elements Of A PSA
  • short
  • goal is to change attitudes or behavior
  • use emotion
  • identifying tag for the organization or cause comes at the end

Then create a comparison contrast chart showing the similarities and differences comparing public service announcements to commercials for products. See how many different similarities and differences you can generate, using the example below to get started:

2. How Are PSAs And Commercials Similar And Different?

There are many more similarities than differences.  Both identify a specific target audience, set measurable goals for the campaign, and design messages that use attention-getting techniques.  Commercials often have goal of increasing people's awareness of the brand while PSAs often have goal of changing attitudes and behaviors.

3. Frequently Asked Questions About PSAs

Q: What is a public service announcement (PSA)?
A: Public service announcements (PSAs) are commercials that are sponsored by a non-profit organization to convey pro-social information to the public, or reinforce or change attitudes about specific issues. Many private organizations sponsor their own PSAs to raise awareness about the warning signs of stroke, for example, which may be sponsored by a local hospital. A "get your dog spayed" PSA might be sponsored by the local Humane Society. On MTV, the "Rock the Vote" campaign to encourage youth voter registration was sponsored by a non-profit organization which created PSAs featuring many popular musical artists and celebrities.

Q: Why are PSAs on television or in print media?

A: Television stations meet part of their responsibility to serve the needs of the community by airing public service ads. This responsibility is stipulated by the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, which in 1934 declared that broadcasters "should serve the public interest, convenience and necessity." Many non-profit and social service agencies have discovered that advertising is an effective way to reach large numbers of people, and can be highly effective in changing attitudes and behaviors.

Q: Who decides how PSAs get broadcast or placed in print media?

A: Because the producers of a PSA do not pay for the time or in which the PSA is aired, they cannot control when or how frequently it gets shown on TV or radio or placed in a newspaper or magazine. Media outlets decide which types of PSAs are appropriate for their target audience.

Q: When are PSAs aired?
A: Stations tend to place PSAs in time no one else has purchased. For example, you'll see PSAs more often early in the morning or late at night, when few viewers are watching. You may also see PSAs during the local evening news when stations are trying to communicate their goodwill to community leaders. Each television station decides to air PSAs individually. Networks and cable television channels also make their own decisions about when, how often, and what type of PSAs to air.

Q: What is the Partnership for a Drug-Free America?
A: The Partnership for a Drug Free America is a private, non profit coalition of professionals from the communications industry, whose collective mission is to reduce demand for illicit drugs in America through media communication. More than $2 billion in broadcast time and print space, and 400 anti-drug ads have been donated in the ten years since the Partnership was founded.

Q: What kinds of criticisms have been made about PSAs?
A: Public service announcements are not without their critics. Some people have noted that PSAs primarily frame issues in terms of individual behavior, like "what you can do" about crime, pollution or drug use. PSAs rarely point out the importance of actions that groups of people could take, or the importance of policies and laws in helping solve social problems like crime, pollution or drug use.