Modern PSAs Shock or Amuse Where Classics Only Preached

The format can help jumpstart creatives' careers

Headshot of T.L. Stanley

Imagine you're watching an X-rated version of Game of Thrones (you don't have to admit that out loud), and all of a sudden, up pops a message about testicular cancer.

Believe it or not, it actually happened. In the scene, porn star Eva Lovia takes a moment out of an act near her partner's privates to demonstrate a cancer check, then directs the viewer to a website,, for more information. After that brief but masterful stroke, Lovia and her cohorts return to a story that was most definitely not written by George R.R. Martin and does not take place in Westeros.

The partnership incorporating the movie (Game of Balls), cooked up by Sydney's M&C Saatchi for the Australian nonprofit Blue Balls Foundation, isn't even the first adult-entertainment link with a public-health issue. It likely won't be the last.

But there's something bigger going on. The campaign points to the fact that public-service announcements—one of the most enduring forms of advertising—have been modernized in every way, from their cinematic look and sometimes cheeky attitude to their digitally savvy distribution. For example, a recent hit PSA for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids from Tribal Worldwide that starred projectile-vomiting robots came by way of an app targeted to at-risk youths.

Far from being relegated to the fringes of media (think dead-of-night TV airings), PSAs are setting digital viewing records, and have even landed in advertising's most visible showcase, the Super Bowl. Still, the messages, now having splintered into subgenres like parodies, gut checks, tear jerkers and social experiments, remain at their core calls to action. The only difference is, they're now going viral, and reaching more consumers than ever.

"They're a simple way to communicate a message—a bare-bones, straightforward approach—and that's why PSAs have stood the test of time," says Tim Staples, co-founder of Shareability, which recently produced a mock PSA about the "dangers" of selfie sticks for Pizza Hut. "But it really takes something extra to break through now because so many people are using this format."

The first PSAs were introduced in the 1940s by the nonprofit Ad Council and were all about propping up the war effort with slogans like "Loose lips sink ships" and "America at war needs women at work." The group went on to launch some of the most identifiable ad campaigns in history, created pro bono by the country's top agencies and financed by brands. They include Smokey the Bear and his "Only you can prevent forest fires" tagline, the United Negro College Fund's "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" and the U.S. Department of Transportation's "Friends don't let friends drive drunk."

One recent campaign, dubbed "Love Has No Labels," has turned out to be one of the most measurably popular. The campaign promoting acceptance and inclusion—created by R/GA and backed by major marketers including Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble along with associations like the Anti-Defamation League and the AARP—has amassed more than 110 million views via social media. In a crafty distribution move, the Ad Council launched the PSA exclusively on do-gooder site Upworthy, where it almost immediately started breaking the Internet.

The video, capturing a live outdoor stunt, placed individuals two by two behind a giant X-ray screen in Santa Monica, Calif. As the pairs danced, hugged and interacted, all that passersby on the other side of the screen could see was a couple of skeletons. The big reveal: Participants were old, young, straight, gay and representing different colors, ethnicities and religions. The aim was to get viewers to confront their biases, conscious or otherwise.

"It's shot in a documentary style using real people, so you as a viewer feel like you are experiencing it—you're close to what's happening," explains Lisa Sherman, president and CEO of the Ad Council. "Those are the most effective PSAs for me. Those are the ones that can evoke a lot of emotion."

Nick Law, R/GA's chief creative officer, says his team let the simple PSA format guide a stripped-down idea and uncomplicated execution. "It's hard for ad creatives to get out of the habit of reaching for the metaphor," he says. "But we decided to demonstrate the power of inclusion by showing inclusive couples. It was honest, and it didn't use techniques that would've made it look like a 30-second spot."

While the project confirmed for Law that a well-crafted tagline never hurts, casting everyday people rather than actors was vital to its success.

It's no wonder spots for nonprofits and worthy causes are among the most memorable campaigns being produced today, says Wendy Melillo, a professor at American University and author of the book How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns. "In a typical advertising career, you're spending your life selling people things they don't need—it's hard to get that worked up when you're selling laundry detergent," she explains. "But working on a great PSA could be a career high. PSAs give you a chance to make a difference and engage in something more meaningful."

Of course, it is no easy feat finding the right balance between creating high art and delivering a message that moves consumers to action. Some of the classic PSAs of years past—like Sally Struthers' infamous appeal on behalf of starving children—have tended to overwhelm viewers, notes Susan Credle, chief creative officer, North America at Leo Burnett. That has given rise to a new, less shocking form of PSA that breaks down problems in more addressable ways.

"When it's just too horrifying, people block it out," Credle notes. "What we're seeing now are messages that make you self-evaluate but don't scare you to death. They're showing you ways that you can make a change. They're accessible."

Markets outside the U.S. are not as apt to shy away from the more visceral and disturbing imagery of PSAs, however. Take Ogilvy Beijing's in-theater stunt warning against the dangers of texting and driving. Moviegoers witnessed a horrific crash splashed across a 30-foot screen right after checking their smartphones for a mass text from Volkswagen. Meanwhile, patrons of a British pub got a serious fright in the form of a bloody head crashing through a bathroom mirror, simulating the effect of a body thrown into a car windshield, as part of an anti-drunk driving campaign.

That said, this country has seen its share of stark and shocking—the forerunner being the award-winning anti-smoking "Truth" PSAs from Crispin Porter + Bogusky. A more recent safe-driving campaign from The Tombras Group for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration showed, in brutal slow-motion, what can happen when teens text and drive. And recent work from Women in Distress and Bravo/Y&R created fake Tinder profiles of men who went from nice to nasty—eventually throwing punches—as a way to spotlight domestic violence.

PSAs can certainly be serious, but current trends are steering away from the exploitative, overwrought images of the past. Even Sarah McLachlan has admitted how hard it is to watch her achingly sad PSAs for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to the strains of her melodramatic tune "Angel."

Perhaps a perfect example of the lighter touch is McCann Melbourne's much-lauded "Dumb Ways to Die," a campaign about train safety that is the opposite of gloom and doom. Its adorably twisted characters and theme song entertainingly get across the message that there are lots of stupid ways to meet the end—poking a grizzly bear, sticking a fork into a toaster—and that stepping in front of a train shouldn't be one of them.

PSAs are such a part of our common experience that campaigns for consumer goods and services have riffed on them. A T-Mobile ad during this year's Super Bowl featured Kim Kardashian asking viewers to "Save the data" while the video "Save the Bros" from brand Organic Valley and its agency Humanaut warned about the potential collapse of the "bro colony" if its juiced members kept chugging chemically enhanced muscle milk.

Such mock PSAs can be "tricky waters to navigate," argues David Littlejohn, Humanaut's founder and chief creative director, and should start with a cultural insight, something that captures the zeitgeist, turns it on its head, and gives the audience permission to laugh, making it "believable and ridiculous all at once. There are so many great causes and Kickstarter campaigns, and we're all being asked to take part in this important stuff. It's kind of a relief when you see the PSA format and you realize it's a joke. You don't have to feel bad about anything, you can just share it with your friends."

There are many more PSAs to come. The Ad Council has tapped into a rich trove of talent like Internet stars iJustine, The Fine Bros., Grace Helbig and Joey Graceffa as part of a partnership with AwesomenessTV, Fullscreen, Google/YouTube and StyleHaul. Under the Creators for Good program, the stars will create videos around a range of social issues like bullying, recycling and teen dating violence.

"These social influencers break the fourth wall, and they speak directly to us, which is different from a traditional PSA," says the Ad Council's Sherman. "That's very effective for audiences now that crave authenticity."

And there's little doubting that PSAs will continue to find a reliable partner in social media.

"People want to show their best selves on social media and that includes being generous and passionate about causes," says Shareability's Staples. "It all goes back to the end user, and sharing PSAs makes people feel good about themselves. As long as social media thrives, PSAs will thrive."

@TLStanleyLA T.L. Stanley is a senior editor at Adweek, where she specializes in consumer trends, cannabis marketing, meat alternatives, pop culture, challenger brands and creativity.