Writing and creating a PSA ad is a lot like walking a tightrope. Tip a little to one side and you're in the territory of offending half the nation; tip to the other, and the ads barely make a blip on the audience's radar. It's a tricky business creating a PSA that's effective and acceptable in the mainstream media like television and print. As creative, you want to shock, expose, terrify, and shake your audience into realizing the realities of these social issues.
But how you do this shows how good you are at your craft. We've all heard creative directors, recruiters, and teachers urge their students not to put a PSA in their books. The truth is that not even many of the seasoned creatives get them right.
But there are some who do. Take the new anti-smoking ads created by Arnold agency for the CDC. While these ads do have the formulaic graphic imagery of most anti smoking campaigns, they rise above the pack because of the realness they portray. There is no tar-filled lung sitting atop a sanitized operating table or a brain sliced in half to expose the blood clot that resulted in a stroke. These spots show the raw, graphic, and sometimes heart-wrenching realities of the daily struggles of ex-smokers suffering from cancer, amputations, tracheotomies, paralysis, and more (Adweek, 2012). Because of the lack of overt vilification of the Big Tobacco, these graphic images don't feel exploitive. It's almost like you're walking a mile in these people's shoes or getting ready with them in the morning.
Sometimes the social issues behind these PSAs are so senitive that you expose all the realities out in the open, and that's when you have to speak between the lines. As a creative, you can no longer depend on graphic images to make the statement. All the weight has to be carried by your idea. Issues like domestic abuse and sexual crimes happen behind closed doors, and that is also an issue that needs to be addressed by the ads. Below are examples of ads that do both.
All in all, PSAs are as complex as the issues that they talk about. You need to approach them with great tact and respect. Often, ads that take a refreshing new approach to an issue stand out amongst the rest. In the end, we still have to remember that even though it's a PSA, we are still talking to an individual through our our ads. So make something that moves you, shocks you, or inspires you to take action.
Nandini Trivedi is a Copywriter with a Masters in Advertising from Boston University (2012). She believes that great creative comes from solid research, good old hard work, and a little bit of mischief. Find her online here.