Emotion, Persuasion, and Public Service Announcements

Close up shot of woman holding change in her hands. A charity image that illustrates PSAs or public service announcements.
Photo by Katt Yukawa on Unsplash

PSAs aim to persuade viewers to support a cause. To be successful, they should rely on inducing emotion as a means to persuasion.

The Ad Council has been crafting memorable and persuasive public service announcements (PSAs) for over 80 years. They launched President Kennedy’s Peace Corps program in 1960 with one of the most well-known ad slogans, “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love.” They also created Smokey the Bear—the iconic face of the longest-running ad campaign in American history. Born in 1940, Smokey is still spreading the message of wildfire prevention (on TikTok and other social media platforms).

I love the Ad Council’s motto (and alliterations in general): Where creativity and causes converge.

In the movie theater last month I saw a PSA created by the Ad Council. It was one of many promotional messages that appeared before the feature film (Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 3), and it featured Zachary Levi, star of the movie Shazam. The PSA was created to further the mission of AdoptUSKids.org, a national project that connects children in foster care with families. It used pieces of Shazam movie footage in an attempt to illustrate a rather creative tagline, “you don’t have to be a superhero to adopt a teen.”

When I saw the above Shazam PSA in the theater, I thought it was an ad for the movie itself, until I saw “AdoptUSKids.org” on the closing frame. Perhaps I wasn’t giving it my full attention, but with the creative focused so heavily on movie scenes, I bet others in the theater also mistakenly thought it was an ad promoting the movie. After watching it later on YouTube, I’ll admit that Zachary Levi does a solid job narrating the spot. However, I don’t think the creative is persuasive overall. My heart didn’t go out to teenagers in need of good homes. I didn’t consider that I could be one of the superheros sought by the organization.

Interestingly, the Ad Council created a very different campaign for the same nonprofit in late 2022.  Those spots recreated adoption stories that drove home a different message: families that adopt teens from foster care are the lucky ones. With a focus on the adoptee, those PSAs show how he/she fits in and brings joy to their new family members.

I think “Lucky Ones” is far more effective at persuasion than “Shazam.” I watched a few PSAs from the “Lucky Ones” campaign on the Ad Council’s YouTube Channel, and they brought tears to my eyes. The emotions of joy they elicited were pretty strong. I felt happy for the families whose lives were changed after adopting teens through the foster care system. I even imagined how my own family would change if we adopted.

What makes a PSA effective?

Research conducted by James Price Dillard and Eugenia Peck explains why the “Lucky Ones” public service announcement might be more persuasive than “Shazam.” In the study, Affect and Persuasion: Emotional Responses to Public Service Announcements, 140 study participants watched eight PSAs, and reported on the emotions they felt while watching, as well as how effective they found the PSAs to be. Effectiveness was defined by the researchers as how persuasive the spots were, not how much the participants “liked” them.

The results of the study showed that, when a PSA elicited emotion in the viewer, the viewer found the announcement to be effective (persuasive). Interestingly, different emotions produced similar effects; for example, both happiness and fear exerted a strong impact on judgements of persuasion. The only emotion that had no correlation with PSA effectiveness was contentment.

As I mentioned above, the “Lucky Ones” adoption spot made me feel happy, and I found it to be persuasive. I didn’t feel any emotion while watching the “Shazam” adoption PSA…which I found rather ineffective. So it seems my own experience aligned with Dillard and Peck’s findings.

It makes me wonder why the experts at the Ad Council developed the Shazam PSA campaign in the first place. I suppose they thought the synergy with a new Warner Brothers movie would be enough to make an impact.

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