PSAs vs Commercials – How Do They Differ?

In the busy media marketplace, commercials are the loudspeakers, constantly broadcasting the latest and greatest in products and services. They’re hard to miss with their catchy tunes and flashy visuals. They’re constantly vying for your attention and wallet, showcasing the latest trends and must-haves. 

PSAs, however, quietly stand in the background, focusing on the bigger picture – societal welfare and awareness. These aren’t about selling; they’re about telling – telling stories that matter for the greater good. In this blog, we’ll explore how these two different voices in the same space serve unique purposes, shaping our views and actions in distinct ways. We’ll answer the following questions:

  1. What is a PSA?
  2. How are PSAs and commercials similar?
  3. How is a PSA different from a commercial?
  4. How does the content within them differ?
  5. What are the key elements of a PSA?
  6. What goes into creating an effective PSA?

What is a PSA?

The U.S. federal definition of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) is a message that promotes programs, activities, or services of nonprofit organizations or government agencies or imparts information generally regarded as serving the public interest. PSAs are disseminated by the media without charge, to raise public awareness and change public behavior. They can cover a wide range of topics, including health and safety issues, disaster relief, energy conservation, and more. The standard length of a PSA is 60, 30, 20, or 15 seconds for both radio and TV.

Regulatory and compliance guidelines around PSAs

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and specific state laws have regulatory and compliance requirements for PSAs that do not apply to commercials. For instance, the FCC disallows public broadcast outlets from using comparative language in describing products, services, or events. 

Here are a few of the regulations in place:

1. Emergency Alert System (EAS) regulations: Emergency alerting is only permitted if the PSA is presented in a non-misleading and technically harmless manner.

2. Participation of state officials: Some states, like New York, prohibit state officials from appearing in a PSA within 90 days of any election in which they are a candidate.

3. Content restrictions: PSAs should avoid asking for donations or talking about prices. They should also avoid promoting one service or event as something that may be more or better in some way than another event, service, or product.

How are PSAs and commercials similar?

PSAs and commercials share several key similarities in their approach to messaging and audience engagement. Both identify specific target audiences, carefully apply persuasive techniques, and set measurable goals for their campaigns. As media messages, they can often air consecutively and aim to raise awareness—commercials focus on brand awareness, while PSAs typically aim to change attitudes and behaviors. In terms of creation, both PSAs and commercials can be high-quality and well-produced and exhibit creative flair, ensuring their message resonates with the intended audience.

How is a PSA different from a commercial?

Apart from needing to meet different compliance requirements, there are several differences between PSAs and commercials, as follows:

PurposeTo raise awareness and change public attitudes and behaviors towards a social issue.To sell products or services for companies.
ProductionProduced by non-profit organizations or government agencies.Can be produced by anyone who can afford to pay for the airtime, including businesses of all sizes.
Airtime CostsAired for free on television and radio as part of the stations’ community service.Companies pay for the airtime each time a commercial is aired.
Success MetricsSuccess is often measured by the change in public attitudes or behaviors.Success is typically measured by increased sales or brand awareness.

PSAs vs commercials: How their content differs

The content within Public Service Announcements (PSAs) and commercials differs in three main ways.

1. Purpose: The purpose of a commercial is to sell a product, service, or idea, while a PSA is produced for a socially relevant cause or a nonprofit organization. Thus, PSAs are slightly more restrained in terms of their approach to persuasion.

2. Message: Commercials are designed to engage the audience with persuasive content to drive sales or brand loyalty. PSAs, however, are more serious, as they are focused on educating and informing the public about matters concerning their well-being without a direct commercial incentive.

3. Call to action: A PSA focuses on educating and informing the public about actions they need to take concerning their well-being. Commercials, on the other hand, often include a call to action to purchase a product or service – which PSAs are not allowed to do.

What are the key elements of a PSA?

The key elements of a Public Service Announcement (PSA) include:

1. Public interest topic: The PSA should focus on a topic that is of public interest, such as health, safety, or community issues.

2. Information about the topic: The PSA should provide relevant and accurate information to educate the audience.

3. Call to action: The PSA should include a call to action, encouraging the audience to change their attitudes or behaviors in a way that addresses the issue at hand.

5. Clear and concise message: The PSA should contain a singular message that is clear, concise, and easy to understand.

6. Visual elements: Depending on the medium, the PSA should include attractive visual elements to engage the audience and reinforce the message.

7. Emotional appeal: The PSA should use emotional language, humor, suspense, or surprise to connect with the audience and make the message more impactful. However, it should avoid over-the-top dramatizations that make your message seem inauthentic. 

8. Research and facts: The PSA should be based on current and accurate facts and statistics about the topic to add credibility and persuasiveness to the message.

What goes into creating an effective PSA?

At Rock Creek, we have decades of experience creating PSAs for nonprofits and government agencies that we’re incredibly proud of. Here are some things we’ve learned along the way:

1. A strong understanding of the audience: The first step is to deeply understand who the PSA is for. Who is your audience? What are their concerns and interests, and how does your message fit into their lives? This knowledge is crucial in crafting a message that connects.

2. Clear and compelling message: The core message of the PSA should be unmistakable and memorable. Catchy taglines help. For instance, in this video we made for the National Council On Aging, the message is clear: “You have the power to prevent a fall”

National Council on Aging Nonprofit Video | Rock Creek

3. High-quality production: While the message is vital, the quality of production dramatically affects how that message is received. High-quality visuals and sound make the PSA more engaging and emotionally impactful. Take a look at a PSA we made for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and how the production quality improves the emotional impact of the message.

EPA Lead Based Paint PSA |

4. Storytelling: A well-told story can be a powerful tool in a PSA. It can humanize complex issues, make abstract concepts relatable, and leave a lasting impression on the audience.

5. Cultural sensitivity and inclusivity: It’s important that the PSA respects and reflects the diversity of the audience. Inclusivity and cultural sensitivity can distinguish between a PSA that resonates and one that alienates. As a government video production company in DC, we strive to make our videos as diverse as possible, reflecting our diverse community.

6. Ethical consideration: Even as you strive for emotional appeal in your PSA, it’s essential to ensure that the PSA is ethical in its approach. This means avoiding fear-mongering, misinformation, and respecting the audience’s intelligence and autonomy.

7. Strategic distribution: Don’t just limit yourself to broadcast media; the great thing about video production is that it can live digitally! Build a smart distribution plan. This involves choosing the right channels (TV, radio, websites, social media) and timing for maximum impact.

8. Research and Expertise: Strong research is necessary, and stats and figures can add credibility to your message. Consider collaborating with subject matter experts to ensure accuracy and effectiveness. Their insights can enrich the PSA’s content and credibility.

Government video production services in Washington DC

We’ve seen that effective PSAs are a powerful tool for social change, combining creative storytelling with critical messaging. At Rock Creek, we specialize in bringing these elements together to create PSAs that are visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and ethically sound. Our years of experience working with government agencies and nonprofits have honed our skills in producing PSAs that genuinely make a difference. Ready to make a PSA? Let’s drive positive change together.

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