What Exactly Is a PSA (Public Service Advertisement)?

You May Know Them as PSAs, But What Defines Them?

Joe Chemo
Joe Chemo. Getty Images

Public Service Advertisements, also known as PSAs, go by many names.

In the UK, they are called Public Information Films, and some of them have become famous (one in particular, Charlie Says, was sampled by the techno group The Prodigy).

In the US, they are known as Public Service Announcements, and are handled by the Ad Council. And in Hong Kong they are known as Announcements in the Public Interest, or APIs.


Unlike traditional commercials, Public Service Advertisements (PSA) are primarily designed to inform and educate rather than sell a product or service. They have been around for decades, with the first ones being shown before the second World War.

During the war, many PSAawere issued, often citing the need to be vigilant, and support the war effort in every way possible. "Loose lips sink ships" is the kind of message PSAs would air. Over the years, PSAs evolved to cover a vast array of public interests, and are still around to this day. 

The goal of a PSA is not to make a big sale, but rather to change public opinion and raise awareness for a problem. The strategy here is to educate first, and provoke a feeling and reaction after that. However, sometimes money is solicited, although usually not for profit. 

Topics Covered by Public Service Ads

As long as there have been advertisements, there have been ads for charitable causes, government issues (including war), politics, religion and health & safety issues.

A typical PSA will be for the latter, with topics including:

  • Drinking and Driving
  • Texting and Driving
  • Drug Addiction
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Fitness
  • Education
  • Gambling
  • Alcoholism
  • Safe Sex

PSAs can be seen anywhere traditional ads are seen, including television and radio, outdoor, online, direct mail and in print. Due to the nature of the ads, many insertions are provided at a discount.

The leading producer of these PSAs in America today is The Ad Council. Initially called the War Advertising Council, it is responsible for the content and frequency of the ads that air. At one point, broadcast stations were obligated to provide this advertising space free of charge, but that was ended when deregulation was introduced in the 80s.

However, arguably the most well-known and controversial PSAs of the last decade have come not from The Ad Council, but from Truth (masterminded by CP&B). Their guerrilla-style ads and controversial street demonstrations have cut through the clutter to create a powerful message about the dangers of smoking. Truth advertisements are intended to be shocking, often using the "sledgehammer" approach to facts, but hitting people over the head with information that cannot be ignored. 

Most recently, texting and driving ads have become the most hard-hitting. The problem is something of an epidemic, with 1 in 4 car accidents now being caused by texting and driving in the USA.

The Fine Line Between Public Information and Propaganda

Propaganda also comes under the guise of PSA, and although the word has a very negative term these days, it really did start out as neutral information.

It could be argued that the Rock The Vote campaign was a form of propaganda, as many of the artists involved were democrats. The real propaganda though, in the negative sense, is seen not on American airwaves but in places where there is, or was, a fascist dictator in power. The PSAs put out by Hitler and Goebbels leading up to, and including, the 2nd World War, were masterful pieces of misinformation and mind control. Kim Jong-il is keeping that tradition alive, filling the North Korean airwaves, streets and printed materials with pure works of political fiction.

Although PSAs often get confused with Public Relations, there is a significant difference between the two. While PR can be used to help spread the word about non-profits, PR is widely used by every other form of commercial advertising.