Massaging the message: Public service announcements

A Regina prof's tips on giving public service announcements a complete makeover.

Quit smoking. Lose weight. Don’t drive drunk. Don’t use pesticides. Turn on your porch light. Conserve electricity.

There is no end to the things governments want us to do or not do. Public service announcements are constantly hectoring us to be better people. But do grim reminders about the risks of obesity or smoking have any real impact on how we act?

Like their commercial cousins, successful PSAs need a message and an audience. But as Magdalena Cismaru, a marketing professor at the University of Regina’s business school observes, achieving success with PSAs is a lot tougher. “A cereal ad just has to convince a consumer to part with three dollars,” she observes. “A PSA tries to get people to change their behaviour in some major way.”

In a paper released this February for the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy, Cismaru investigated which PSAs get the best results. Surprisingly, she found that soft-sell advice on how to change your behaviour was substantially more effective than scare tactics. “Threats alone are not enough,” she says. “I don’t think there is a smoker in Canada who doesn’t already know that smoking leads to all sorts of terrible diseases.” In other words, those grotesque pictures of diseased lungs currently mandated on Canadian cigarette packs may be of little value.

“What is much more important in people’s decision-making process is ‘how difficult will it be for me to make these changes?'” Cismaru observes. She singles out a U.S. Department of Health & Human Services campaign on weight loss as one of the most effective in this regard. The Small Step PSA ( lists 119 simple ways–from switching to fat-free milk to taking a walk after dinner–to fight obesity. Cismaru’s message? Governments should go for simple, not just scary.