I have found that ad agencies tend to come out with quite outstanding public service (or social issue) ads. This is obviously because public service ads allow greater freedom for creativity; there are no ‘boundaries’ inhibiting the creative process. I mean, when you are creating ads for brands and services that have a commercial motive, the client is likely to be that much more cautious. A public service ad, on the other hand, can afford to shock, disturb, jolt or jar without fatally risking the cause that it is promulgating.
But do public service ads work?
I would think that the jury is still out. However brilliant a public service campaign is, it is unlikely to work on an immediate basis. The primary reason is that public service ads are not selling a product or service but are trying to affect deep-rooted public attitudes and behaviours. And that is quite an uphill task.
One of the first initiatives of the new Indian Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. It is a great initiative given the lack of basic public cleanliness that the average Indian displays. The initiative has been followed up with an extensive media campaign and other initiatives including the announcement of celebrity ambassadors. Sadly, I am aghast to find how indifferent even so-called educated Indians are towards civic cleanliness; many still continue to litter without any compunction. On the positive side, one hears of some great work being done by ordinary Indians to keep public areas clean. A good beginning has been made but major visible changes may still be a few years away.
I know of public service initiatives that have had a good impact. I remember the Balbir Pasha campaign that PSI ran in the early part of the naughties to tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic in India. A lot of us talk about non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, diabetes and cancer but what we don’t realise is that communicable diseases, such as AIDS and malaria, kill more people each year.
The Balbir Pasha ad campaign was extremely visible, especially in port towns from where the HIV/AIDS problem originates. But the reason that the initiative had positive results was because it was a complete initiative – it consisted of a huge amount of work on-ground with sex workers, their clientele, the distribution of free condoms etc.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is the largest animal rights group in the world. Its slogan is ‘animals are not ours to eat, wear, experiment on, use for entertainment or abuse in any way.’
PETA focuses on four core issues—opposition to factory farming, fur farming, animal testing, and animals in entertainment. It also campaigns against eating meat, fishing, the killing of animals regarded as pests, the keeping of chained backyard dogs, cock fighting, dog fighting and bullfighting.
Despite working since 1980, PETA has had limited success. It has also been criticised
for the use of scantily clad women in its campaigns, and criticism in general that the group’s media stunts trivialize animal rights.
However, despite all the controversies, the PETA movement has grown to become a worldwide one and many celebrities have lent it a hand. Hopefully, people are also getting the message and are changing their habits and behaviours.
A public service initiative will work if it is developed holistically. Just running an ad campaign without concurrent on-ground work is likely to yield unsatisfactory results. I am sure that most public service organisations are aware of this fact. However, if one is working on an ad campaign for a social issue, the following points must be borne in mind:
- The client (and the agency) must do a pre-campaign research to understand the behaviour or problem that has to be addressed by the ad campaign. It is also very important to understand the demographic and psychographic details of the primary target audience. You will be surprised but many organisations don’t do this.
- The campaign must have a broad scope. Just using one medium – TV or print or outdoors – may not be effective. The campaign must aim to utilise the entire gamut of above-the-line and below-the-line vehicles.
- The campaign must bring all stakeholders together. This is not to imply that the campaign must be cleared by a committee; however, everyone involved with the social issue and the campaign should be made aware of the objectives, the strategy and the desired results.
- Public service ads should ideally try and avoid controversy. If there are too many people who get offended, the campaign will meet with a lot of complaints and resistance.
- The use of celebrities has to be with caution. Celebrities are, of course, likely to add a lot of interest; however, in many cases, their presence may compromise the absorption of the message.
- It is best to avoid ‘scare tactics.’ Extremely shocking and disturbing ads are likely to be ignored. It is much better to build trust and a sense of caring for the cause with the audience.
- Public service ads must be actionable; here should be a response required from the viewer of the campaign.
- And, as is true with almost anything, a public service ad must be effectively simple.
India is faced with a whole host of serious social (and economic) issues. A few are given below:
- Poor educational infrastructure
- Opportunities for youth
- Child survival
- Gender-based violence
The Indian central and state governments have been at it to eradicate many of the social problems that plague the nation. Companies and ad agencies have to become far more pro-active in lending a hand if the problems have to see an eventual demise.
Every nation has its own set of social issues. Many are doing it well. Just to give you an idea of the social issue ads being run internationally, attached is set of 60 that do make you think. You can see the ads here.
Sources: Wikipedia; Effective Public Service Ad Campaigns, Bill Goodwill, Goodwill Communications, Inc.
Top visual courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/coolz0r/