What Is The Difference Between A Commercial And A Public Service Announcement?

Many people believe that they need to spend money to buy airtime to have their message broadcast. While that is true in most cases, it does not apply to Public Service Announcements or PSAs. So, what IS the difference between a commercial and a public service announcement?

The difference between the two is usually the intent and purpose of the spot. A commercial is meant to sell products or services for companies whose intent is to promote their product/service to attract buyers. PSAs aim to raise public awareness about health and/or safety issues and, as such, are aired for free by national and local tv and radio stations.

In order to make an impact, non-profit marketing really needs to be on-point and focused in its messaging. You don’t want your audience to ignore the message because you are raising awareness about important stuff, right?

For an effective PSA campaign, you first need to know and understand the differences between commercials and public service announcements. So, let’s get on with it!

How is a PSA different from a Commercial?

If you own a television set, the chances are that you are familiar with PSAs. Let me refresh your memory. Remember all those announcements emphasizing breast or prostate cancer screening? Yup, those are public service announcements!

Mistaking PSA and commercials for the same thing is pretty common because they have many things in common. For example, both of these are some forms of advertisements. Moreover, both are being aired during a commercial break on radio or television.

But there are some major differences that set them apart.

These include but are not limited to:

  • Who creates them?
  • How are they played on television?
  • What content do they include?

Who Creates Them?

Commercials can be produced by literally anyone who can afford to pay. No matter how big or small the company is, if you can afford to buy the airtime, you can sell your services or the product on-air.

PSAs, on the other hand, are produced by non-profit companies only. For-profit corporations cannot produce PSA or request a free time slot. They can, however, donate time and money to help produce the PSAs.

How are they played on television?

PSAs and Television advertisements are treated differently by television channels. Each time a commercial is aired, the company pays for the run time of the commercial. You see, from the company’s point of view, the purpose of spending money is considered as an investment to entice people to buy their product.

However, that is not the case with PSAs. A PSA is run on TV or radio for free. Television and radio stations and networks are required by FCC (Federal Communications Commission) rules to dedicate a certain portion of their ‘advertising’ time to PSAs. This time is donated to the non-profits, and their PSAs air for free.

What content can they include?

Both PSAs and commercials need to have high-quality content to capture the target audience’s attention. Comparatively, PSAs have a lot more restrictions than commercials. For example, PSAs cannot ask for donations or recruiters. According to the FCC, PSAs are prohibited from using words like free and discount. They cannot use media channels for any monetary benefit.

The tone of voice matters a lot in PSAs. For example, a PSA cannot ask people directly to do something. They cannot use verbs or strong words that command action. So how then can PSAs convey the message, you may ask? Here is an example:

“Do not smoke” and “smoking is dangerous to your health,” while different statements can convey the same message. However, all the difference lies between how the message is being conveyed. The 2nd one is conveying the message without instructing the viewer what to do or commanding action. The information is presented in a form that ‘informs’ or ‘educates’, without ‘ordering’.

Many times, TV or radio stations run local campaigns that can make an impact on the community. Some advertisement slots are given to PSA announcements to ensure that the word spreads quickly. For example, in a community with a high drug rate among teenagers, the top favorite tv or radio stations of youngsters might play PSAs related to drug abuse or drug control throughout the day.

Some Notable Examples of Public Service Announcements

PSAs were first introduced when the US joined World War II. The advertising agencies wanted to play their part in the war effort, so they created a council. Today it is known as the ad council, which is responsible for many famous PSAs, including the following:

The Smokey the Bear campaign, which was introduced in 1944 and is the longest-running ad campaign, continues today. Smokey Bear’s iconic line “only you can prevent forest fires” is one of the most successful tag lines in the history of PSAs. According to a 2000 study, the forest fire campaign helped decrease the number of burned acres from 22 to 8.4 million annually.

Another famous PSA campaign features the line “Take a Bite Out of Crime.” This PSA was introduced by the National Crime Prevention Council in collaboration with the Ad Council. It persuades Americans to take the bite out of crime and help build more safe and secure communities. McGruff the Crime Dog’s iconic character is still teaching kids and adults safety tips related to violence, drug abuse, etc.

How To Create An Effective PSA

Every PSAs primary purpose is to inspire change and persuade the audience to take steps to promote particular behavior. We can conclude that PSAs are a great tool to create awareness, bring attention to critical issues and deliver crucial information regarding certain health and social issues.

But to do all that, you need a PSA that is highly effective and does its job skillfully and successfully. Here are some things to know that will help you create an effective PSA:

Know your audience. With any media, identifying your target audience is critical, and job #1. You wouldn’t use a teenager’s vocabulary to communicate with the elderly. Similarly, if you are targeting teenagers, you want to be certain that your message ‘speaks’ to them not only in words but tone and visual style as well. ‘Speaking’ to your audience in ways which they can relate maximizes the resonance of your message.

Know your point. A PSA will almost never be more than 60 seconds long. Typically they are only 30 seconds and sometimes even just 15 or 10 seconds. Know what your message and takeaway are, and be clear and focused in conveying them.

Too much information can cloud your message and confuse audiences.

Know your facts.  Statistics and facts can really grab audience attention and are a great way to convey issues to your audience in a manner they can easily understand. So do your research and use the numbers to inspire action.

Get your script right. Writing is the backbone of any production. Take the time to reach and write an effective script.

Focus on primary points and deliver them assertively.

Who Pays For PSAs?

If the commercial advertisements are paid for by the company that owns the product, who pays for PSA? The simple answer is: a PSA is not a paid advertisement. The organization that produces the PSA doesn’t pay to have it aired. Instead of the organization buying airtime, the broadcaster donates the ad time to play the PSAs per FCC regulation and to serve the masses as a ‘public service’.

As a result of this arrangement, stations infrequently air PSAs during high-dollar/high-viewership time. The airtime and how and when a PSA will be played is based on the broadcaster’s discretion. This is where the importance of PSA Distribution enters the picture. But that is another post for another day…

Wrap Up

If you are a non-profit company and want to make a PSA, but budget restraints get you thinking – I can’t possibly make a fancy PSA with this limited budget. Let us help you, because you can definitely produce a PSA without a big budget.

Instead of hiring actors, just show how many people your organization has helped. Share real stories because the truth is always powerful. Or, create a PSA with no original shooting, completely in a post-production environment.

This can involve stock video, text on screen, original animation and graphics, or some combination of the above.

Many of our non-profit clients have seen great results employing these techniques.

A Public Service Announcement is a great way to raise awareness in the community about your non-profit’s mission/cause. You can do a PSA on education, drug abuse, disaster relief, or anything that falls in the public benefit sector.

Make sure to deliver a concise message and target your audience correctly. For guidance, contact Braun Film & Video Inc. Having been in business since 1992, we have worked on 5 continents and produced in over 15 different languages. Experience counts when you want the best PSA or commercial product. Contact Braun Film & Video Inc today!

By | March 25th, 2021|Uncategorized|0 Comments