This is part of a series of articles by MBA students at California College of the Arts dMBA program. Follow along here.
By Curt Rollison
While research may question the correlation between Public Service Advertisements (PSAs) and behavior change, organizations seem undeterred in their commitments to leverage the medium. However, some issues are better suited to be impacted by these advertising campaigns petitioning for change than others.
Not all PSAs are created equal
According to an academic meta analysis of 48 media health campaigns (a form of PSA), behavior change typically takes place in one out of every 10 people in the target audience. Now, depending on whether you’re a glass-half-full or -empty type, you may see that figure as a success or failure. However, success rates vary depending on what type of social issue you’re trying to address. The research defined three campaign categories as:
1. Adoption of a healthy practice (e.g., condom use, nutritious food consumption)
2. Cessation of an existing unhealthy practice (e.g., smoking, drunk driving)
3. Preventing initiation of an unhealthy practice (e.g., tobacco and drug use by youth)
This sub-analysis found that campaigns seeking adoption of a new behavior were twice as effective as campaigns positioning for the cessation of current habits (12 percent vs. 5 percent of population impacted). Meaning, PSAs are a lot better at getting people to add something new to their routine than taking something out. Campaigns promoting health services landed in the middle with a 7 percent success rate. This data would suggest that if your cause depends on getting the public to stop a current habit, a PSA is probably not the best way to go.
Some campaigns have to do a lot more than just get the word out – they have to shout over very loud opposing forces. I’ve never seen a pro-animal abuse campaign, but when it comes to the world of alcohol, PSAs face a billion dollar industry essentially vying for the opposite result. Now I’m not saying that breweries and distilleries are pro-drunk driving, but the industry as a whole isn’t helping by making their product appear as harmless as Aquafina and ten times more fun. How could you and your fashionably multicultural friends gather socially without booze? Research by PhD, Melanie Wakefield, shows that this mixed messaging has made anti-drunk driving and alcohol abuse campaigns some of the least effective campaigns produced.
PSAs are good for building awareness and putting names to issues, but when your cause attempts to influence its audience to stop rather than adopt, systems thinking and service design will likely make a more lasting impact by helping better address the root need. Startling and emotional ads like the series of anti-meth videos for the Meth Project directed by Darren Aronofsky of Black Swan fame are gut-wrenching, but cannot replace the social paradigms and institutions needed to help prevent drug abuse. Besides getting the world’s best admen and women on the case, we need to bring together designers and systems thinkers to approach these issues more holistically to lead individuals and communities into a better tomorrow.