Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Reaching Insomniacs with Television PSAs: Poor Placement of Important Messages

Academic journal article The Journal of Consumer Affairs

Reaching Insomniacs with Television PSAs: Poor Placement of Important Messages

Article excerpt

Most of the research conducted on the effectiveness of public service announcements has focused on improving internal characteristics of advertisements, such as message design and appropriate targeting. Scant research has been conducted on PSA effectiveness in terms of media placement. The purpose of this study is to estimate the audience coverage achieved by the broadcast television portion of the Ad Council's drunk driving prevention campaign. The results show that on average, only 11.2% of households in the top 30 markets were exposed to at least one of the PSAs in a monthly campaign. Almost half of the total 902 advertisements were aired during late night (1:00 a.m.-6:59 a.m.) whereas fewer than 10% were aired during prime time. Overall, the data suggest that despite the seemingly large amount of airtime and media dollars donated to PSAs by television stations, the advertisements are reaching a very limited number of people. Since most public service messages are important, failure to reach consumers with these PSAs due to poor placement is a problem that broadcasters must continue to address.


Public service announcements (PSAs) consistently have been used to inform the public about health-related issues such as drunk driving, drug abuse, and AIDS prevention. A PSA "is designed to give unbiased information on some public problem and is in the public interest" (Evans 1978, 28). Lynn (1974) stated that PSAs are "persuasive, yet highly specialized forms of communication utilized to disseminate information on public issues to the masses" (622) and to promote issues that are considered to be socially desirable (Garbett 1981). They are intended to help improve people's safety and welfare by providing information to enhance them (LaMay 2002).

Essentially, there are four sources of PSAs: 1) private firms that use them as a form of institutional advertising, 2) associations that promote a specific cause, 3) local, state, and national governments, and 4) the Advertising Council (Ad Council), a non-profit organization supported by media, advertising agencies, advertiser organizations, and private firms.

The Ad Council is thought to be the single most-active source of PSAs. Since the mid-90s, broadcasters have consistently increased the amount of free airtime donated to Ad Council PSAs. In 1995, broadcasters contributed a total $564.8 million in airtime to Ad Council messages, up more than 61% from the previous year. Cable contributed $237.7 million, up 29.1%. According to FCC chairman Reed Hundt, this increase is "a good example of the important contributions the media can make to serve the public interest" (A Matter of Time 1995). The 1995 total of $802.5 million for broadcast and cable television and radio is more than nine times the donated space of all other media combined, including outdoor, transit, newspapers, magazines, new media, and business press (McConnell and Albiniak 1998).

In 1997, the Ad Council received $996.2 million in donated time and space from all major forms of media combined, up 7% from 1996 (Ad Council 1998). Radio and television combined donated about $703.3 million, a 48% increase from 1996. Radio is the larger supporter of Ad Council PSAs, contributing 58% of the grand total (Ad Council 1998). In 1997, this medium contributed $573.7 million to public service advertising, up from $542.3 million the year before. Time donated by television also increased from $91.6 million in 1996 to $129.6 million in 1997 (McConnell and Albiniak 1998).

More recent figures indicate that this trend continues. The Ad Council reports that in 2000, traditional media donated $1.5 billion to its PSAs ( Of that, radio donated approximately $708 million, the Internet donated $392 million, and television donated about $316 million (Brown 2001). This is consistent with the results of a 1999 study by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) in which they report that stations donated a total of $6. …

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