Short Ideas Blog Post 10 on the PSA genre

Defining Video Genres — PSA (Public Service Announcements)


Public Services Announcements (PSA), or Public Information Films in the UK, are traditionally commercial–length messages created to communicate a message of social benefit or interest to the public. These can encourage certain social behaviour, like “don’t text and drive”, or inform the public about the existence of a charity that specialises in helping people in a particular situation. Broadcasters donate the air time, production companies may donate what resources they have, and individual participants in the production may be pressured to work for free or at a reduced rate.

As the writer, you may find yourself treading in deeply worn territory, or maybe poorly positioned out of your area of expertise. Research what they have done before (regardless of medium) to get a sense of what tone has been acceptable in the past, listen for the language that is used, and watch for possible sensitivities to larger issues. This approach is true of copywriting in general, but all the more so with clients of any degree of sensitivity.

If they’ve previously done PSAs, then they may be in a position of updating and refreshing the message, in which case you need to ask yourself how you can address their issue while showing a slightly different perspective, or maybe you can spot a subtle distinction that can be exploited to breathe new life into the conversation.

This was the case for a children’s support line charity with whom I worked. They wanted to repeat their usual message but were uncomfortable with the way their clients (ie. the children) were characterised as being of a certain age, clique or social class. I seized on this distinction and conceived of a spot that suggested both the variety of users and reinforced their anonymity, breathing enough fresh life into the campaign for a consistency of message without feeling stale.

Be A Dad

This spot is by the Ad Council, an American non–profit organisation that produces campaigns deemed to promote the public good and be of national significance. The message is clear and delivered in an engaging way, beginning with an unusual scenario and building tension until the unlikely message is revealed. This moment of revelation causes an exciting rush in our minds, as the “this man is crazy” assessment is re-evaluated to “this man is a good father”. (Or, in terms of our previous post on disunity, the initial tension of behavioural disunity generates a massive amount of interest that resolves to spectacular emotional effect.) This important shift within the viewer reflects the goal of the film, to shift our perception about what it takes to be a good father… this experience of experiencing a change encourages us to repeat it by actually taking action.

World’s Biggest Asshole and Leila

The Martin Agency’s “World’s Biggest Asshole” exemplifies leading with your audience and speaking directly to them. Anyone with a touch of a dark sense of humour can appreciate this spot, but it is definitely targeted at a younger audience that would not be reactive to the more usual heartstring–heavy approach that appeals to an older audience, such as “Leila” by the Organ Donation Foundation of South Africa. They both support the same cause and both use story to create an emotional change in the viewer, though with drastically different approaches. The first uses a contemporary, short comedy film approach to tell a story of redemption and inclusivity to compel the viewer to action, which feels very refreshing and guilt free. The second, very well produced, takes a more traditional guilt-based route that suggest you will murder an innocent girl like this if you don’t sign up to organ donation. They should be targeted to different audiences, as the former is likely to elicit a stronger response from a youth audience while an older audience is more conditioned to this sort of guilt-based message (as seen in long distance telephony and insurance ads for the last several decades).

Frank Drugs

This spot leverages the clichéd setup of anti–drug PSAs to effectively connect to its audience. A video like this requires the beginning to be a pitch–perfect rendition of the boring, hackneyed tropes of the style but it is a dangerous game. In terms of entertainment, the payoff is worth sitting through the humdrum opening moments, but you run the danger of losing your audience before they discover it. The end result is a gamble between stronger engagement and not being seen. This approach works fine on a linear medium like broadcast television, or with an in–stream (non–skippable) online scenario, but would be a disaster with a TrueView pre–roll that offers a 5-second skip feature.


This video offers a clear message to the audience but in an awkward treatment that feels a bit like Arrested Development’s one–armed man refrain, “that’s why you don’t…” The message is logical but very on the nose, with a feeling like an out-of-touch parent wrote it (“let’s put the word cool on a billboard!”) Under 14s may respond well to this sort of clear, authoritative message, but I would think that casting the audience net a little wider to include an older group would be wise as they are also in danger of playing with fireworks, only more dangerously with alcohol. This treatment would definitely turn off that older set.

Guns with history

Another contemporary look on the PSA, this film is part–marketing stunt. It deviates from the usual format of the live–action narrative in favour of the observational/hidden camera style.

Giant Eagle “Spend Time With Kids”

This classic PSA was not for a charity at all but an American supermarket chain that was after some good PR rub-off onto their brand. Cloaking themselves in a message of promoting pro–family values, they position themselves as a fine, upstanding brand and member of the community. Clearly, though, there is emphasis on the importance of a “healthy breakfast” which indirectly promotes they products they sell. This usage of indirect promotion serves to strengthen and position the brand, and is a good example of how this branch of PSAs is a sort of precursor to the current trend towards brand films — adjust the public good angle of the message towards a more targeted “we do good things” and you’re nearly there.

If old PSAs tickle your fancy, check out TV Ark’s archive.

Thanks for reading, and, as always, if you have any other observations or want to discuss (or disagree with) a point, please let me know in the comments below.







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