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What is a Public Service Announcement?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated May 16, 2024
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A public service announcement (PSA) is a commercial or advertisement from the government or a nonprofit group. Print or broadcast media that usually charge a fee for publishing advertising run the ads for free. Newspapers, magazines, online publications, radio and television stations all publish these announcements at least occasionally. Publishers don't charge the government or nonprofit organization for running the ads because they are doing it as part of a public service to promote a safety or health message.

An anti-drug advertisement is a common public service announcement. The ad may promote a nonprofit group such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous and include contact information on the television screen or in the print ad. The content of the ad usually shows how drug abuse can ruin lives. It may also give common symptoms of drug abuse and ask that anyone experiencing them or knows someone who is to call the number shown for help. In this way, PSAs can inform and educate the public about health issues while also offering direct contact information to nonprofit organizations that can provide help for the specific issue.

A public service announcement is something that most people see in magazines, hear on the radio or see and hear on television on a regular basis. For example, in a women’s magazine along with advertisements for food products, clothing and miscellaneous items, there is likely to be an ad from a health organization such as the American Heart Association. Its messages consistently inform the public about heart healthy activities and foods that help promote good heart health. The ad typically has a website address that people can go to in order to find groups to contact in their area as well as locate articles and information about living heart healthy lives.

Unpaid promotional messages that are public service announcements have to be from nonprofit or government organizations for the media to run the ads for free. A PSA director at a radio or television station usually must approve the organizations allowed to run announcements. Some public service announcements are likely to appear during a disease outbreak such as the swine flu. These types of PSAs are usually produced by a government's department of health and inform the public on what to do, such as effective hand-washing to help prevent contracting or spreading the disease.

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Discussion Comments
By MrSmirnov — On Oct 06, 2011

Does anyone know how you would go about making your own public service announcement if you wanted to bring awareness to a non-profit organization you were working for?

The non-profit I work for doesn't have a huge budget, but we would like to get into public service announcement production because we feel that television ads would really garner our organization a lot more attention.

Do you think that the local cable network might be keen on helping us out? I know that still do a lot of free public access television, so it might be a good way for use to get access to some more professional equipment. Though I suppose with all the digital equipment around these days, making a quality video is easier than ever.

By letshearit — On Oct 06, 2011

There have been really great public service announcements over the last few decades. I think that public service announcement production keeps getting better and better thanks to the amount of funding they receive.

One of my favorite PSAs of all time was the house hippo ad by Concerned Children's Advertisers that showcased the life of an adorable house hippo. Though the commercial aired quite a few years ago on Canada television I still remember it clearly because of the great special effects that really got the message through. You can easily check the ad out on YouTube if you search for it. It's well worth a look in my opinion.

By stl156 — On Oct 05, 2011

@matthewc23 - Although I can see where you are going with your assessment of possible fear mongering I feel that this is done for the reason that you described.

A scary visual image is much more effective and longer lasting than simply having a famous person say not to do drugs. I cannot remember any good public service announcements that involved using a celebrity but I can sure remember many of these commercials that scared me to death as a kid.

Most of the arguments that are made against these commercials either say they are too scary or they come from supporters of the cigarette and alcohol industry or from the industries themselves. In reality, it should not effect their sales too much as once kids become old enough to buy either they are able to make their choices as grown adults.

I remember the commercial of the dad talking to the tombstone of his dead and it being a drunk driving public service announcement, but that does not stop me from enjoying a drink once in awhile. What it did for me as an adult is make me think of not to drive drunk and to be responsible if I were to have any drinks at all.

By matthewc23 — On Oct 05, 2011

@cardsfan27 - I have had a lot of of problems with some of the public service announcement commercials that have been on television over the years. I know that their message is to try and keep kids from having problems in the future and to try and educate them, but I feel that the way some of theses public service announcements have displayed this message induces fear mongering and in some instances I think is way too graphic for really young children.

I guess along the line they decided to use fear as the main driving point of their commercials because it would have a greater effect than having a famous person simply say to not do drugs.

By cardsfan27 — On Oct 04, 2011

@titans62 - Oh boy do not get me started on the snake man selling drugs. Although the anti drug public service announcements were sometimes very scary they were not the only ones that I thought were scary.

I remember the public service announcement commercial where a man is talking to his son about drunk driving and then the camera pans out and he is really talking to his sons tombstone. I always thought that it was a very effective ad, but was different because it was not necessarily direct at the kids, but rather the adults in hopes that it might scare them into talking to their kids about the dangers of alcohol and how dangerous drunk driving can be.

I also cannot remember whether or not the commercial told that the father killed his son while he was driving drunk, but I am pretty sure that this was the case and thinking back if that was the case this was a pretty dark commercial.

By titans62 — On Oct 03, 2011

When I was a little kid in the early 1990's I could not help but pay attention to the public service announcement commercials that seems to always scare me whenever I watched my cartoons.

One thing I remember back then, and now that I am a little older to see what they were doing, is that they were trying to scare kids straight.

Back when I was a kid the public service commercials always concerned drugs and either the effects of drugs or how bad they are and would make sure to always do it in the most frightening way possible. The snake man selling drugs to kids still gives me nightmares.

By suntan12 — On Oct 03, 2011

@Cupcake15- Those are great commercials. Every time I think of public service commercials I can’t help but think of the episode in the sitcom Friends in which the character Joey played by Matt Le Blanc did an whole public service announcement advertising campaign involving the sexually transmitted disease VD.

He thought that it was just another modeling job and he did not realize until after the public service announcement posters were plastered everywhere that he was doing a commercial for something like this. It was funny because he did not have the condition but now people thought that he had it because of his association with the print ad.

By cupcake15 — On Oct 02, 2011

I love the anti-smoking public service announcements because they are so vivid and really illustrate what happens to a person when they smoke. My children watch these commercials and always ask me why people smoke. These commercials also make it easier for parents to explain the dangers of smoking.

I remember the public service announcement that involved the anti-drug message regaarding an egg being fried in frying pan. I will never forget that commercial which essentially was saying, “This is your brain on drugs” and then the person would crack an egg and fry it in a frying pan.

All you could hear was the sizzle of the oil which really drove home the point that drugs fry your brain. It was a very effective commercial that I still remember to this day.

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