When you think of a public service announcement, depending on your age you might remember that famous ad with the image of a fried egg coupled with the phrase “This is your brain on drugs.” And there’s a reason for that: they work. The best PSAs can drive awareness, make you think about an issue in a new way, and even drive you to take action.
In some ways, PSAs are just another type of ad, but there are important ways in which they are different from traditional advertising. In this article, we are going to discuss the history of the PSA, why they matter, and (us being an animation studio) what happens when you apply the magic of animation to a PSA campaign.
Public service announcements are defined as messages spread in the public’s interest. This means that rather than a profit motive, a PSA tends to raise awareness of a problem that affects the public and ask that members of the public take specific action to help fix the problem. PSAs aim to raise awareness and change attitudes, opinions, or behaviors toward an issue. They can be instructional, inspirational, or even shocking. Unlike commercials, PSAs are not paid advertising. In fact, broadcasters donate some of their advertising inventory (the slots they reserve to show ads between programming) to messages for the public good.
Flipping through the history pages, we see that the first non-governmental public service ads appeared in the early 20th century and were run for free by newspapers to dramatize the outrages of child labor. They gained traction, and by 1938 Federal regulation of child labor was achieved in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which included minimum ages of employment and hours of work for children. Later, the U.S. government formalized the PSA with the creation of, the Federal Committee of Public Information was created to support government messaging in World War I. It is from this committee that “Uncle Sam Needs You” originates.
Other successful campaigns from the Federal Committee of Public Information include the War Savings Stamps drive, which advocated to “save the thoughtless dollars being wasted,” as well as the Red Cross campaign that featured a Madonna-like image titled “Greatest Mother in the World,” and the Selective Service campaign that supported draft registration. And if the phrases “loose lips sink ships,” “keep ‘em rolling,” or images of Rosie the Riveter mean anything to you, there are World War II PSAs we have to thank for it.
Once agencies saw how well PSAs worked, they became a part of general advertising practices. Over time, what we know as a modern PSA has been refined. However, only the best characteristics from the past have remained as PSAs evolve into what they are today.
As we’ve seen, PSAs educate the community about important topics and make more people aware of issues around them and what they can do to help. PSAs also empower the audience to make changes with reduced risks and increased safety. In addition to inspiring action, the best PSAs are mutually beneficial as well as authentic, targeted, and results-oriented. PSAs do not simply tell people why specific actions or behaviors are wrong but inspire them to make changes that will improve their lives and their world. PSAs are more than just memorable lines and catchy jingles. Effective PSAs use techniques like slogans or songs to convey action steps in a lasting, memorable way. Empathy is also frequently used in PSAs to make them more effective. You’ve probably seen a PSA or two that encourages compassion and support to those who are struggling. The message of the PSA then is not just to educate communities about a problem, but to identify who needs help, what they need, and why we should care.
Researchers quickly realized that integrating PSAs with visual media would present the information more familiarly and put it in front of many more eyes. As a result, many television programs began including PSAs after their shows about related topics. This is when we start to see animation and PSAs really join forces. By the 1980s, many cartoons began creating unique clips of their characters, integrating the announcement at the end of an episode. Notable examples include Smokey Bear, who was on Yogi Bear with the American Cancer Society making a statement about not smoking cigarettes, as well as GI Joe “knowing is half the battle” and more.
Animation studios continue to partner with PSAs into the present. For example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Cartoon Network has put out many PSAs focused on good hand washing, cleanliness, and hygiene best practices. The key here is knowing your target audience and presenting the information in a way that will best connect to that audience.
Animation can take a PSA to the next level by conveying a lot of information in a small amount of time, using an imaginative scenario or unique character to communicate with the audience, or artistically depicting an emotional story. For example, at Duke & Duck, we created a PSA for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA) that advocates for the modernization of dietary supplement regulation and supports consumer health. This PSA packs a lot of information into a short run time but leaves viewers feeling inspired to look at their supplements and help fight for modernization. And for the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, we created a PSA that brought one teacher’s personal story to life, in order to connect with teachers who are desperately trying to help students struggling with bullying but are unsure how to help.
If your audience includes children, animation can be a key strategy for grabbing their attention and keeping it while delivering educational content. When our team worked with the Virginia Department of Health to educate viewers on the COVID-19 vaccine, we incorporated imaginative scenarios and unique characters into their PSA to appeal to adults and make it approachable for children so they can learn about the importance of vaccinations.
We’ve also worked closely with the American Red Cross on various campaigns, such as Safety Activities, which is a series of videos focused on how powerful imagination can be. To help support this messaging, the videos provide step-by-step instructions for games and exercises that are educational and entertaining. For example, we have PSAs on “soap vs. germ,” “wash away the germ,” “6 feet apart,” and others that help children learn how to stay safe and, moreover, show them that safety can be fun.
Another project that gave us the opportunity to communicate with kids is the Pedro the Penguin series, a preparedness education program filled with songs. Some of these PSAs include “Pedro Prepares for an Earthquake,” “A Power Outage Story,” and “A Wildfire Story,” among others. Their catchy tunes stick with kids and can pop in their heads when needed, similar to “Stop, drop, and roll” or any PSA from your childhood whose language still resonates with you.
All of the history and strategies for PSAs are interesting, but at the end of the day, how do we know that PSAs make an impact? Aside from simply remembering so many of them, there is plenty of data to show their impact.
The number of people who smoke cigarettes has drastically decreased since the 1960s when we became more aware of the health risks, in large part due to PSAs. And speaking of smoke, another PSA campaign that resonated with people featured Smokey Bear, who started as a beloved figure and became integral to an environmental debate. For those who don’t know the story, a black bear cub was rescued from a burning New Mexico forest in 1950, given the name Smokey, and sent to D.C., where he lived at the National Zoo. By 1964, Smokey received so many letters that the postal department gave him his own ZIP code.
Likewise, the trench-coated McGruff the Crime Dog, who provided tips on crime prevention, reached a variety of demographics. About a fourth of the national sample exposed to the McGruff campaign said they had taken actions intended to prevent crime based on the McGruff PSAs. The campaign was relevant for 12 years and generated $60.3 million with only $600,000 invested. Another PSA that remains highly relevant in society despite its distant origins in 1973 by the National Commission on Fire Prevention and Control is “Stop, Drop and Roll.” This PSA was used in fire prevention education programs and is still taught in today’s school system. While incredibly simple, it effectively teaches how to handle yourself in a fire and demonstrates how PSAs can stand the test of time.
PSAs can teach you lessons that last a lifetime, and with animation, they can do it in a fast and fun way. I don’t know about you, but I know if I ever lose a tooth, I’m putting it in a glass of milk on the way to the dentist, just as Dudley the Dinosaur told me to back in 1995. The point is, a cartoon PSA taught me something that stuck with me for over 25 years. Just think what an animated PSA could do for your message!