Have you heard the term PSA before? It stands for Public Service Announcement. You have probably seen some before. If you are around my age you may remember the one with an egg in a frying pan and someone saying “This is your brain on drugs” from the 1980’s.
An advertisement is a brief media message designed to sell a product. It can appear in a variety of formats such as an item in your social media feed, a page in a magazine, or a video message on television. A public service announcement is an “advertisement” but instead of selling a product, it is designed to provide information or change a behavior. PSAs are video or radio files created by health organizations, government agencies, and others. Sometimes the goal is to encourage a healthy behavior, such as getting exercise. Other times the goal is to discourage an unhealthy behavior. For instance, there are many PSAs designed to discourage smoking. PSAs are aired on television and radio stations for free as a way for the stations to provide a service in the interest of the public. This is required by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
There are many examples of PSAs over the years. The Ad Council is an organization that started during World War II. It was developed through a “collaboration between the advertising, media, and business communities”. People from advertising agencies donate their time to create messages and the media provides free air time to show the messages. They created Smokey the Bear, McGruff the crime dog, and Just Say No.
In public health we also talk about mass media campaigns. A public health media campaign gives health messages to the public using different strategies such as PSAs, billboards, bus and subway signs, and social media posts. Media campaigns can be a useful and cost-effective way to get information to a large number of people. People have studied media campaigns and have learned that there are several strategies that can make them more effective. For instance, we need to make sure the messages are provided in places where people will see them which depends on who you are trying to reach. We have also found that it is useful to pre-test messages, meaning that we see if a small group of people respond well to the message before it is provided to a large group of people.
A pandemic requires information to be given to people on a very quick timeline. Since PSAs can reach many people quickly and provide information in a clear and easy to understand way, they can be a great resource. PSA's about COVID-19 have been created to provide information about protective actions people can take such as hand washing or to raise awareness about why it is important to stay home. Others provide information about where to get testing or hotline numbers people can call. The Ad Council has been working on several COVID-19 public service announcements including this one about the Centers for Disease Control and another one that uses Elmo to teach children how to wash their hands. New York State created a PSA designed to encourage people to stay home. This example from Saint Lucia is directed at people who interact with children. It is colorful, provides some good tips, and has someone using sign language to make the video more accessible. To see more examples of COVID-19 PSAs from around the world, see my YouTube playlist.