A PSA about PSAs

The idea of a public service announcement is an interesting concept, made possible through mediums of communication like the radio and television. They originated as ways to spread propaganda and promote a national message to support a war-effort. More recently, they tackle social issues our society is struggling with in order to motivate people to support a cause or organization. They have the ability to reach a huge amount of people and change the way that population thinks about a certain issue. As a result of the impact the PSA can have, it needs to be truthful and well thought out.

As I started the process of creating my own PSA I had a general idea of how to make a PSA. The structure, the music, the message. Still, as I actually experienced the process I realized an effective PSA reaches further to connect with each individual viewer; something very difficult for a video that is hoped to be seen by millions. Here’s what I gathered from the very difficult yet rewarding process of making a public service announcement:

  • Emotional Connection is everything: In every PSA I came across during my research, the use of pathos was the main method of transmitting a message to the viewer. In “Clean Water PSA (public service announcement): Why is this swimming pool bone dry?” that emotional connection is established between the audience and a young boy, committed to becoming a great swimmer. We see him go through his preparation in the locker room—stretching, listening to a race, putting his goggles on—and within seconds we immediately want him to succeed. We can all relate to having a goal and chasing it tirelessly no matter how difficult it may be. This feeling of hope and joy is quickly replaced with sorrow and sympathy once we see the swimming pool he is about to dive into his completely empty. We don’t know this boy but we wish he had the opportunity to tackle his dreams, and because of this relationship we’ve established with him, we’re then more likely to donate to the organization Lien AID, who helps address the water scarcity in developing regions. By putting a human face on the issue, it becomes more real for the viewer. “Wishes – A Public Service Announcement” also establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the characters in the video. “Wishes” is about accomplishing the dreams you have as a children and being able to look back at the end of your life and be satisfied with your journey. It’s a concept everyone can relate to and understand, and without presenting it, the viewer may be less inclined to following a path of math or science which is the ending message.

  • The reveal should be surprising but make sense: A PSA usually walks the reader down one path and then reveals a message that is surprising, but related to the story of the PSA. Water scarcity usually isn’t talking about the water in a swimming pool but when it is revealed the boy can’t swim because there’s no water the audience immediately understands the message. This build up to the reveal is also crucial to keeping the audience engaged. To keep their attention the PSA needs to be entertaining and suspenseful, clearly building to something. When the audience thinks favorably of the characters of the PSA and even cares about them, and the ultimate message is about those characters, they will most likely accept it.


  • Music should help set the tone: Music is a crucial element of any movie or video, having the capability of contributing to the story as much as the visuals. The music in PSA’s usually is somewhat dramatic as the creator wants the audience to believe the issue demand immediate attention. The music also mirrors the emotional connection being established and the ultimate reveal. In the PSA “Sandy Hook Promise: Gun violence warning signs” the music is meant to distract the viewer, mirroring the ultimate goal of the PSA, to demonstrate how we are distracted and often times miss obvious warning signs of people thinking about committing violence. This PSA, as good as any other, reveals the power music has in shaping the audience’s experience. It’s a tool that needs to be utilized strategically.

Reflecting back on my PSA, I think I was somewhat effective at each of these but definitely still have room for improvement. I depended on the nostalgia a viewer would have watching these old news reports to build the emotional connection between the news and the viewer. It’s a connection I think already exists but needs to be reestablished as the media has lost trust recently. I don’t think my reveal is that surprising but I do think it matches the tone I set throughout the video. I think the music I used matches the nostalgic tone but could have lacked a build-up that pushes the idea of urgency.

2 thoughts to “A PSA about PSAs”

  1. Phenomenal. This is marketing at its core–loved the Sandy Hook shooting PSA, especially because that one is able to captivate an audience for so long. I think a hugely important part to PSAs is the story-telling component too. Naturally, telling a narrative involves a lot of playing of emotions (pathos) that you finely highlighted.

    Another component that I was thinking about in PSAs is that facts usually come at the very end, coupled along with the emotional reaction to the plot-twists. Plus, a lot of these PSAs usually jump right into the story with little context, and allows the audience to understand that context as the story progresses.

    I am very curious about what the PSAs genre conveys itself in other mediums, such as audio-based (radio stations), linguistically-based (public notices), etc. Interesting videos–thanks for sharing!

  2. I think you’ve done a good job of condensing PSAs into three main components, all of which are critical to the success of such a mode. I think it was a good move to not only recognize these features but to be able to connect them — i.e. the link between forming an emotional connection and using the right background music. If anything, the combination and balance of these pieces will determine just how effective a PSA is.

    I’ve seen the Sandy Hook PSA video before, and I think it’s the perfect embodiment of the ‘it’s a shock, but it also makes sense’ point. You’ve done a good job of choosing solid PSAs to model your own after, and so I’m sure your own PSA experiment is pretty good!

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