One of the earliest examples of nongovernmental public service advertising was sponsored in 1906 by an organization known as the American Civic Association. Its members were concerned citizens who feared that electric companies would divert water from Niagara Falls. They purchased ad space in national magazines to solicit contributions and support. The ads raised public awareness, and the electric companies were forced to adopt measures that reduced diversion from the falls.
In the U.S., the federal government is a frequent sponsor of ads designed for public service. During the Civil War, the government sold bonds through newspaper advertising. During World War I, the government created a Federal Committee of Public Information-essentially a propaganda bureau—to inform and persuade the public about the war effort.
The committee had a Division of Pictorial Publicity led by the artist Charles Dana Gibson. Mr. Gibson called on the talents of top illustrators of the day, including James Montgomery Flagg (creator of the historic "Uncle Sam Needs You" poster). Other artists who contributed to the war effort were J.C. Leyendecker (famous as the illustrator for Arrow shirts) and Howard Chandler Christy (whose illustrations of female figures were known as "Christy girls").
When the U.S. entered World War II, ad professionals felt that their talents could be used to promote the war effort. The War Advertising Council was created in 1942 to work with the government's Office of War Information. The council's first president was Chester LaRoche of Young & Rubicam. Price Gilbert of Coca-Cola Co. headed the Bureau of Graphics & Printing for the OWI. Ads encouraged wartime conservation, enlistment in the armed forces, the participation of women in the workforce and the purchase of war bonds. "Rosie the Riveter," an illustration of a female industrial worker, became a popular icon.
Serving the public good
Advertising professionals donate their time to create PSAs. The organization for which the campaign is developed often pays out-of-pocket production costs (which might be as much as $100,000). The Ad Council then distributes the advertisements to publishers and broadcasters, who may choose to donate space or time to run the ads. By the mid-1970s, the Ad Council was acquiring more than $500 million a year in media time and space for public service advertising. The organization claimed to have acquired nearly $1 billion in donated media space/time in 1997.
The council conducts approximately 35 campaigns per year. Selected campaigns must be noncommercial, nondenominational, nonpolitical and significant to all Americans. Well-known campaigns have included the U.S. Forest Service's "Smokey Bear" ads (from Foote, Cone & Belding), the United Negro College Fund's "A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste" (Young & Rubicam) and the National Crime Prevention Council's "Take a Bite Out of Crime" ( Saatchi & Saatchi). Other campaigns have promoted health and safety, environmental preservation and the arts, among other causes.
According to the 1934 Communications Act, broadcasters have a mandate to serve the public interest of the communities in which they operate. This act requires the Federal Communications Commission to grant and renew broadcast licenses only when broadcasters uphold their obligation to public service.
Broadcasters support public service efforts by participating in or sponsoring fund-raising events (e.g., telethons), by broadcasting public affairs programming and by donating airtime sometimes valued at more than $1 billion annually.
Representatives from organizations such as the Center for Media Education, Action for Children's Television and the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council often dispute broadcasters' estimates of their donated media time, maintaining PSAs are often broadcast during late-night time slots, when other ad revenue is not available. Critics argue that such airtime is not as valuable as broadcasters claim.
Because they seek to control when and where PSAs appear, organizations promoting social issues are increasingly willing to pay for placement. In the 1990s, the U.S. Congress awarded nearly $1 billion to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy for a five-year antidrug campaign. Spending continued into the 21st century. Congress required media companies accepting the purchases to match the purchase with an equal amount of donated space/time.
The fact that nonprofit and government agencies have become increasingly willing to pay for ad placement represents a shift in favor of the view that social causes can be "sold" in much the same way as products are. A field of research and practice called "social marketing" adapts marketing principles for the promotion of social causes.
A debate over social marketing has continued since the early 1970s, when the practice first emerged. According to the social marketing perspective, the promotion of social issues can be more successful if promoters use marketing principles such as segmentation and copy testing.
On the other hand, social issues differ fundamentally from products; they may, for example, be more closely related to deeply held values or more likely to provoke anxiety among consumers. Frequently, the target audience is opposed to the social issue being promoted or it may be very difficult to reach (e.g., drug abusers). To what extent social causes and products can be promoted in the same ways as commodities and brands remains to be seen.
National TV networks sometimes produce and run their own public service messages. These PSAs typically feature actors from popular prime-time series with messages about teacher recruitment, mentoring, staying in school and other noncontroversial issues. While these network messages benefit from star power, critics contend that they promote the networks as much as any social issues and that the network-produced PSAs are replacing prime-time airing of other PSAs.
Cable networks also produce PSAs. For example, MTV sponsors the "Rock the Vote" campaign, designed to encourage young adults to vote. In early 1999, the network launched "Fight for Your Rights," a campaign against violence in schools, neighborhoods and college campuses. Local publishers and broadcasters also produce and distribute advertisements on behalf of local nonprofit organizations.
Corporations continue to produce public service advertising as well. Oil companies have sponsored ads urging consumers to conserve fuel. Beer company advertising urges consumers not to drink and drive.
Toward the end of the 20th century public service advertising began to find its way into new media. Nonprofit organizations first ventured into what might be called, in more narrow terms, online advertising when advertisements for Earth Share appeared on the Prodigy online service beginning in 1993. The National Fatherhood Initiative ran banner ads on the Alta Vista search engine Web site beginning in 1996.
The Internet Advertising Bureau, a trade organization for the Internet advertising industry, asks its members to donate 5% of their ad space to public service advertising.