The Untapped Potential of PSAs

How often do you find public consensus on an important issue can be distilled down to a simple catchphrase?

“This is your brain on drugs” “People start pollution, people can stop it”  “Only you can prevent forest fires.”

These are just a few of the mantras that, despite receding from the airwaves, have continued to reverberate from even the most cobwebbed shelves of our cultural memory.

And more importantly, the moral attitudes we formed in reciting those memorable refrains have left a permanent imprint on our sense of civic duty in regard to the hazards of addiction, smog and wildfire.

Tucked in the narrow spaces between commercial advertising’s bids for our attention, Public Service Announcements have quietly nurtured our moral and ethical intuitions.

But while brief PSAs have multiplied in quantity with each passing year, it has held equally true that the substance, depth and diversity of the messaging has grown discouragingly limited.

There is no shortage of issues deserving of the public’s attention – threats to free speech on college campuses, administrative barriers to economic flourishing and widespread ignorance of our Constitution, to name a few. But the focus of too many PSAs has trended instead toward the abstract – too far removed from engaged Americans. Calls for attention toward the dangers of impaired driving, for example, have taken a backseat to abstract virtues – “awareness,” “prevention,” “acceptance” – that find us moved by emotion, yet deprived of solutions.

Fortunately, dissatisfaction with these limitations is what has ripened the current moment for new opportunities. Which is, after all, exactly how the free enterprise system works.

PSAs have powerful reach. And where the medium once provided the original soundtrack to a culture of civic responsibility, this trusted model of broadcasting can just as well be recalibrated to address our culture’s more immediate challenges.