Public Service Announcements Are a Vital Part of Media

A photo of Smokey Bear
Smokey Bear became a household name thanks to a long-running public service announcement campaign designed to fight forest fires. Photo © Cameron Devon / Getty Images

Definition of a Public Service Announcement

A public service announcement (PSA) is an advertisement that a television or radio station airs for a cause or a charity. A PSA can tout the importance of medical check-ups for children or ask you to donate to the Salvation Army's bell ringers.

What Makes a Public Service Announcement Different Than a Commercial:

Public service announcements are not paid advertising.

A broadcaster donates the ad time as part of its commitment to serving the public interest. While there's not a requirement to air PSAs, it reflects well on the station when it comes time to renew its broadcast license with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

You'll typically see public service announcements airing during weaker time slots or on stations with less share of the advertising market than their competitors. That's because those stations have more time to fill.

A typical TV commercial break is two minutes. If a station only sold one minute's worth of traditional TV advertising, then it may choose to fill the remaining one minute with a 60-second PSA or two 30-second PSAs.

Some stations make a decision to devote a certain number of ad slots to PSAs, particularly for a campaign that has local impact. In a city with a high teenage pregnancy rate, a Top 40 radio station that is top-ranked with a young audience could air announcements on abstinence or birth control throughout its broadcast day.

Famous Public Service Announcements

There are several famous public service announcement campaigns that have aired across the country. These campaigns are typically tied to the Ad Council, which produces high-quality advertising with the help of some of the best creative minds in the nation.

Two of the most famous campaigns in history involve protecting the outdoors.

Smokey Bear has reminded people not to start forest fires since 1944. Another PSA icon from the 1960s to the 1980s was Iron Eyes Cody, the Native American who shed a tear because people polluted his native land.

Today, McGruff the Crime Dog teaches children the dangers they face in the world and how to prevent becoming a victim. He's been on the case since 1979.

Why Public Service Announcements Aren't Seen As Much Today

Because broadcasters aren't forced to air public service announcements, many don't. When there is time to fill in a commercial break, they often use station promotion, like topical ads for newscasts, instead of airing these public interest messages.

In the heyday of Smokey Bear, stations didn't produce as many ads for themselves. It was easier to run a PSA than to film a news promo. Now, in the ultra-competitive world of broadcasting, stations want to brand themselves with as much self-advertising as possible. So PSAs get left out or are relegated to the wee hours of the morning.

A Public Service Announcement Is Also Known As: psa, radio psa, tv psa, broadcast psa

Find Your Next Job

Job Search by