PSAs Fight To Be Heard

T wo luscious scoops of ice cream sit in a clear glass dish with two cherries on top. It’s not an ad for Ben & Jerry’s. The image is meant to represent a woman’s breasts in a public service advertisement designed to increase awareness about breastfeeding.

Several body parts—bellies, butts, chins and love handles—are found discarded on beaches and on staircases. It’s not a promo for CBS’s hit Crime Scene Investigation; it’s a scene from an antiobesity effort.

Critics have dismissed both campaigns by the Ad Council for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services—the first for being too titillating and the second for being too gross. But many nonprofits and media and ad executives take their complaints one step further, claiming that those efforts represent what is wrong with the current state of PSAs— namely, that they are too expensive for smaller nonprofits that lack the roughly $1 million Ad Council entrance fee and often contain creative that is too risque.

Ad Council president and CEO Peggy Conlon shrugs off the naysayers, insisting that what matters in the end is demonstrating real social change. “There is a growing din that public advertising doesn’t work, but these people are being incredibly naïve,” Conlon said. “Our model is not cheap; it’s complex, and it takes a hell of a lot of work. And it works.”

And to those who are quick to criticize the edgy creative, she said, “Don’t paid advertisers look for a way to break through the clutter? If you want to talk about the power of PSAs to change behavior, they have to be noticed.”

The Ad Council runs an average of 50 campaigns each year. In return for the nearly $1 million annual commitment for at least three years, nonprofit groups get the creative, weekly tracking studies that measure how often their PSAs have run and, in some instances, a Web site where people can get more information. The Ad Council also negotiates upfront media commitments with media outlets to ensure dedicated time for PSAs.

Campaign topics are selected by an Ad Council advisory committee and must address health and safety, education, community or children’s issues. The Ad Council is also asked by nonprofits and the federal government to take on their issues. Some critics claim that the government is becoming one of the few entities that can afford an Ad Council campaign.

The Ad Council is not the only public service model out there, but it is the largest. Because it is the single entity doing the most for a variety of public service causes—it secured $1.7 billion in donated media for its 50 campaigns last year—some say that criticizing it at all is not the fairest thing to do. But, its high-profile campaigns, backed by pro bono work from some of Madison Avenue’s best shops, and with a revenue stream bolstered by nearly $10 million in annual contributions from agencies, advertisers and media companies, make it an easy target.

The problem with PSAs extends beyond Ad Council campaigns. For the most part, creating effective PSAs has become so expensive that only the groups with deep pockets can afford to do them. Big players with large campaigns dominate the playing field and use their muscle to enhance their own position, such as Ad Council work, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America’s effort with the White House for paid antidrug ads, and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s relationship with Viacom on AIDS issues. Add to this broadcasters’ growing unwillingness to devote airtime to nonprofits—when such space can be used for a paid spot or to promote its own shows—and the future of PSAs looks cloudy at best. PSAs end up competing with each other for limited time and space.

According to the Ad Council’s annual media report, broadcast and cable commitments to PSAs declined 9 percent last year, from $364 million in 2003 to $333 million. The decrease is attributed to “inventory pressures due to increased program promotion and corporate-branded PSAs.”

Harvey Dzodin, former vp of commercial standards at ABC, thinks it’s time for representatives from the ad world, media companies and the government to create a fairer model. “Either you come up with a new model, or it is survival of the fittest, and I’m not sure that from a public policy perspective, the Darwinian model is the best thing,” he said.

Only the fittest and luckiest public service campaigns survive and thrive. Take the Kaiser Family Foundation. The private nonprofit foundation focusing on health-care issues forged a partnership directly with Viacom to create the “Know HIV/AIDS” campaign. Kaiser started out with an Ad Council campaign in 1997 about talking to kids about difficult issues. Kaiser quickly learned that if it wanted better exposure than what the Ad Council could offer, it needed to work with the networks directly, said Vicky Rideout, a Kaiser vp.

When it came time to do an AIDS campaign, it first went to MTV. From there, Kaiser branched out to BET. Having already established a track record with Viacom properties, Kaiser was then able to successfully approach the parent for a companywide effort.

Kaiser secured a deal where it would invest $600,000 a year and in return, receive about $200 million in media time and space. Viacom not only runs the PSAs, which are done by DDB, Seattle, and Crispin Porter + Bogusky, Miami, but it imbeds HIV content in its programming across all its media properties and contributes about $1 million in cash to the effort. Over the three-year effort, Viacom has donated about $600 million in time and space.

“I think the future for nonprofits is to work more directly with media companies,” said Matt James, Kaiser’s svp of media and public education. “Media companies are looking for opportunities to do good things, and the amount of direct airtime you get through direct partnerships is tremendous.”

The Kaiser/Viacom partnership is a nice deal, but not everyone is so lucky. Carl Folta, Viacom’s evp of corporate relations, who oversees the Kaiser partnership, said that while Viacom would be interested in talking to anyone who has a good idea, doing two of these partnerships at the same time “would be difficult.”

Viacom agreed to the partnership because AIDS was the one issue to which all of its media companies had a longstanding commitment, Folta said. But the Ad Council’s Conlon said the Kaiser model would be hard to adopt because not every media company wants to run the same PSA campaign that they would use in a magazine on a cable network. “[Media companies] can look at the suite of issues we represent and pick ones that are consistent with the brand and appropriate to the demographic,” Conlon said.

Paid public service models like the White House’s $120 million antidrug media campaign and the American Legacy Foundation’s antismoking campaign, called “Truth,” are effective, according to the University of Michigan’s “Monitoring the Future” study for the White House effort and studies published in the Journal of Public Health, but the organizers of such campaigns can afford to pay their way. However, that is no longer true for the “Truth” campaign, since the tobacco industry’s requirement by law to make payments to run the campaign ended in 2003. Although Legacy has set aside money to continue the “Truth” campaign, it will run out of funds by 2009 unless another source is found, according to its projections. Now Legacy is struggling to forge a media partnership similar to the Kaiser deal.

Paid campaigns can also decrease the inventory broadcasters make available to other nonprofit efforts. When the PDFA teamed up with the White House to create the antidrug media campaign, Congress included language in the authorizing legislation that would require media companies to match every dollar the campaign spent with an equivalent amount of donated time. The purpose was to give the campaign, which had a budget of $195 million at the time, the heft of nearly $400 million worth of media time and space.

At the same time, Congress prohibited the campaign from “supplant[ing] current pro bono public service time donated by the national and local broadcasting networks,” according to the legislation authorizing the campaign. To ensure time for other groups, the Ad Council was given the contract to select which drug-related PSAs would run in what was called “the media match.”

But in the dog-eat-dog world of PSAs, ONDCP and the PDFA successfully lobbied Congress in 2003 to give the match almost exclusively to the antidrug campaign, a move that cost other nonprofits about $30 million in donated time for each year since, according to Ad Council figures. Conlon unsuccessfully fought this at the time, but has since declined to lobby Congress to get the match back.

The PDFA argues that the squabble over the media match is merely a symptom of the fight for a slice of the public service pie. Its own partnership with the White House to run the antidrug campaign is an example of how each group must navigate given the new economic realities. (The antidrug media campaign’s declining budget also played a role in the decision to take back 85 percent of the match.)

“You have to find very creative and smart ways to remain relevant,” said PDFA evp Stephen Dnistrian. “You do this by being proactive and very aggressive with developing new forms of message delivery for target audiences.”

Conlon, for one, is sensitive to criticism that broadcasters don’t do enough, a problem highlighted by a Kaiser study called “Shouting to be Heard,” released in February 2002. The study, which Kaiser is updating and releasing next year, found that broadcast and cable networks donated an average of 15 seconds an hour to PSAs, which represented just under one half of one percent (0.4 percent) of all airtime. Conlon says the study’s methodology was flawed because it only looked at seven broadcast markets, while Ad Council research to evaluate the exposure of its campaigns studies all 210 markets. Kaiser countered that it studied a 24-hour period in seven markets for seven months, which included more than 1,600 hours of programming, to get a representative sample.

Broadcasters have no legal obligation to air PSAs, and even if the Federal Communications Commission were to consider such rules, other experts like Dzodin argue that they should apply to cable and satellite as well to make it a fairer playing field. “I don’t think regulation is the answer,” Conlon said. “I am convinced it won’t happen, and I think a better path to take is to be a partner and not try to beat them up.”

Taking on the broadcasters is no easy task. When former Ad Council president Ruth Wooden supported Alex Kroll, then Young & Rubicam chairman emeritus and chairman of her board, in his call to broadcasters in 1997 to devote one minute of prime time space each night to PSAs directed at children’s issues, the reaction wasn’t pretty. The nets fired back that they were already doing enough and their promotions featuring celebrities—like NBC’s “The More You Know” ads—should count as PSAs.

Wooden, who declined comment for this story, said at the time, “The promos are very effective methods of raising public awareness of products, networks and even social issues, but they displace the PSAs, whose single purpose is to educate the public.”

Kroll didn’t return a call.

Broadcasters argue that the challenges affecting PSAs are the same problems affecting TV in general—increasing clutter and fragmented audiences. “This is not just an issue of the public service commitment declining,” said Eleo Hensleigh, CMO and evp of marketing and brand strategies for the Disney-ABC Television Group. “People may be watching fewer commercials. So we have to look at it in its totality and not single out one issue.”

Hensleigh said broadcaster commitment to public service is still strong, but she recognizes they can’t do everything. “It breaks our heart to see the amount of stuff we are approached with each week, because we can’t air it all,” she said. “We have an interest in being responsible and hopefully have a positive effect on our viewers’ lives. And we have to balance that as an entertainment and news and media company.”

There are some bright spots. Nonprofits can turn to the Internet to get their messages out. Murray Gaylord, vp of brand marketing at Yahoo! and a former Ad Council exec, thinks nonprofits should consider search marketing. For $2,500, groups can buy a keyword like “mentoring children.” For a total $100,000 investment, Gaylord said nonprofits can have an effective Internet PSA campaign.

Another hopeful option is the increased frequency allocations the nets received to accommodate HDTV. Broadcasters will run multiple programming at the same time by “multistreaming,” which means more inventory to run PSAs. “ABC News Now,” a 24-hour news initiative for HDTV that includes programming, which launched in July, is one example.

But unless nonprofits push broadcasters, advertisers and regulators for a better model, some think there will be fewer PSAs in the future. “Changes will only be made if the people who are affected say they are mad as hell and are not going to take it anymore,” Dzodin said. Others worry if the boat gets rocked too much, willingness to do PSAs might vanish entirely. As Conlon said, “Nobody has to do any of this.”