Commentary

To Impact Next Generation, PSAs Go Digital

Awareness of public service ad campaigns is not the same in the Internet age. The days when a large, passive national audience watched three TV networks and could recall such messages are over.

To create an iconic campaign like Smokey Bear, which spans generations, is much more difficult now. But there is a chance to keep PSA campaigns alive in our collective memory. The Interpublic Group is using the very digital tools that have created such a fragmented audience to spread the word about the pro-bono work of its agencies.

By creating a dedicated Web page to showcase its PSA campaigns, Interpublic is satisfying two key points: promoting a worthy cause and securing great PR for the ad agencies that produce them. Also, creating a specific microsite prevents such work from being buried inside a corporate Web site. It can effectively preserve the message in perpetuity.

Interpublic is not alone in its embrace of digital possibilities.

WPP and Omnicom list pro-bono work under a corporate social responsibility page on their respective Web sites, but they don't dedicate separate microsites to it. Omnicom also has a page on its company site called "Omnicom Cares," where it features PSA campaigns. Interpublic spokeswoman Jemma Gould says agencies spend so much time sweating over the $100 million account for a Fortune 500 company that they can lose track of the work that makes ad executives proud to be in the business.

"Our industry does do a lot of pro bono work, and the product we create is a creative product," Gould says. "But we don't always measure and track it."

Last year, Interpublic donated more than $15 million in time and service to its pro-bono work. In 2005, Interpublic agencies started measuring pro-bono campaigns and began collecting small case studies of such work in 2009. The Web page highlights what the company considers to be its best efforts.

The "That's Not Cool" campaign, done by the digital shop R/GA for the Ad Council and the Family Violence Prevention Fund, is a significant campaign to display on the Interpublic Web page. First, it addresses digital dating abuse, an enormous concern to parents and young women. Second, the campaign represents the first time the Ad Council selected a digital shop to prepare all elements of the campaign, including the traditional creative for TV, radio and billboards.

It doesn't matter if the population is unable to recite taglines like "Only you can prevent forest fires" says Nick Law, R/GA's executive vice president and CCO. "Marketing in the digital space creates more opportunities around changing behaviors," Law says. "It is a lot easier and a lot more effective to use social media to rally people around a cause. It goes to actually helping people."

Point taken.

But as a country, we are losing an important part of our cultural experience if the general public doesn't see PSAs. In essence, they underscore the values that Americans share: protecting our collective health and welfare. Advertising can tell moving stories that benefit society as a whole. Won't they lose impact if only a targeted slice sees a PSA campaign?

They won't, argues Erica Grau, a partner and COO at Deutsch, the agency that prepared the work for the Michael J. Fox Foundation to raise money to fight Parkinson's disease. (It's featured on the Interpublic Web page.) The Internet has the same ability to reach a national audience, Grau says. "Pro-bono [work] is a morale builder," she adds. "Any great work should be studied, and this is an easy way for people to find it. That is the power of the Web overall."

For Drayton Martin, the group account director for Mullen, PSA campaigns that reach the target audience and change behavior are important, but creating a campaign that becomes a cultural phenomenon, rather than just a momentary flash, is also necessary. She believes Mullen's "Buzzed Driving" campaign, which appears on the page and was done for the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, accomplishes both goals.

"People in the agency world want to have an impact on the world," Martin says. "We want to do good rather than just sell goods."

If Interpublic's Web page can keep a variety of PSA campaigns alive in the mind of future generations, I'm all for it. I'd like to see all advertising holding companies do more to showcase such efforts.

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