Are you afraid of the PSA?

Gabriel Beltrone’s post “Don’t Cook Yourself in a Toaster, Waffle Iron or Tanning Bed” on AdFreak yesterday reminded us that, in recent years, public service announcements (PSAs) have drastically shifted from stern prompts to downright terrifying portrayals.

Need proof? Watch the old-school “Your Brain on Drugs” Partnership for a Drug-Free America PSA and then watch this domestic violence spot titled “It Rarely Stops.” Scary, right?

We believe the shift occurred not because people (teenagers especially) were no longer getting the message, but because softened images didn’t actually deter dangerous behavior. Tell a teen, “Don’t smoke cigarettes; they cause mouth and lung cancer,” and they’ll say, “Okay, yeah, I know.” But show them a woman whose face is practically decaying, and they’ll say, “Holy crap, that’s gross. I’m never smoking.” Or that’s the thought behind it, at least.

So our question today is, “Do graphic PSAs really influence behavior?”

North Carolina’s WXII12 tried to find the answer when its reporter asked three teens guilty of texting while driving to watch this graphic European “Don’t Text and Drive” PSA. Their reaction (seen here) was disbelief and shock. They said actually seeing the possible deadly consequences of their actions changed their texting and driving beliefs.

But did it actually change their behavior? Our guess is that it did for a while. They probably even told a few friends about it. But ten dollars says the majority of those friends didn’t look up the video. And twenty dollars says, after some time had passed, those original three teens probably began texting and driving again.

Of course, these are just guesses. Those teens may have stopped texting and driving forever; we don’t know. Our point is, graphic PSAs scare a change in behavior in the short run, but they probably don’t actually change behavior in the long run.

So what kind of PSAs can change behavior? Our opinion is true stories. Don’t give the people actors bloodied in a car crash; give them a girl whose best friend died when a texting driver collided with her car telling her story directly to the camera.

Or give them something artistic and memorable like the beyond brilliant “Embrace Life” PSA. We believe either of these options are more likely to permanently change dangerous behavior.

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About promotionalguru

A marketing communications professional helping other marketing professionals, business leaders and marketing students gain a better understanding of trends in advertising and public relations as well as tips for being a successful marketer.

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