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Public Service Campaigns Try to Garner Attention

When it comes to public service campaigns, the goal is not so very different from the intent of advertising for commercial goods and services. Public service announcements, which appear pro bono on behalf of organizations that promote safety, health and social causes, must engage the audience and build awareness.

To that end, the producers of pro bono campaigns are working harder than ever, it seems, to catch the attention of television viewers and readers of magazines and newspapers. Their unconventional creative efforts -- on issues as disparate as Parkinson's disease, birth defects, suicide prevention and vision impairment -- have another audience, too: the so-called gatekeepers in the media who determine which few public service announcements will benefit from free time and space among the many that are pitched.

"The whole point of public service advertising is to get somebody to take action," said Gary Scheiner, vice president and associate creative director at McCann Relationship Marketing Worldwide in New York, part of the McCann-Erickson World Group unit of the Interpublic Group of Companies. "You have got to make the most of it."

Last week, McCann Relationship Marketing used the season finale of the ABC sitcom "Spin City" as the vehicle for a public service announcement for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

The star of the series, Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease, appeared in the commercial, discussing how he was leaving to devote his time to help search for a cure for the disease. "If you've got somebody like Michael, you'd be an idiot not to use him," said Steve Cowles, senior vice president and group creative director at McCann Relationship Marketing.

Another agency, the Lord Group in New York, a joint venture of Dentsu Inc. and Young & Rubicam Inc., took a different creative approach -- casual humor -- to bring attention to a serious health issue. A television campaign for the March of Dimes encourages women to take a daily multivitamin with folic acid, which could prevent birth defects. Avoiding a stodgy approach that would have, say, delineated the chemical effects of folic acid, the commercials show a live stork arriving at an office to tell an employee she is pregnant. As the visitor inches its way through the cubicles, employees react differently: a woman tries to lure the stork closer with a sandwich and a man climbs on his chair to avoid it.

"Humor gives it a more contemporary tone," said Penny Redfern, an associate creative director at Lord, so "you don't necessarily realize it's a P.S.A."

She said that to change the behavior of a target audience, "you've got to shake them up."

"Just giving them the information straight, they're not going to change," she said.

Along the same lines, Henry Hagerty, the president at Think Bank in New York, which represents companies that produce special effects for advertising, created a short film meant to serve as a public service announcement to raise awareness about suicide. Mr. Hagerty plays the lead role in the film, "Easter Clearing," which he said was based on a dream he had after a friend committed suicide.

The short film tells the story of a distraught man who loses interest in his thoughts of suicide when he finds himself suddenly trying to save a kidnapped child.

"It's not the easiest film to watch," Mr. Hagerty said. "But if you could just save one life with that film, wouldn't that be a cool thing to do?"

"Easter Clearing" can be viewed at www.atomfilms.com, the Web site of Atom Films in Seattle. The film has also been distributed at 340 centers of the National Mental Health Association, said Patrick Cody, a vice president at the association, where it is used to begin discussion groups for suicide survivors.

Another organization trying to get the attention of a specific audience is Lighthouse International in New York, which helps blind people and people with partial vision lead more independent lives.

Instead of starting a campaign to promote its cause, Lighthouse prepared pamphlets that seek to demonstrate how contrasting colors and more legible text can benefit readers. The goal is to encourage agencies that produce ads and TV commercials with text on screen to make them more readable.

The effectiveness of print as an advertising medium is being weakened, said Jerry Della Femina, chairman of Della Femina/Jeary & Partners in New York, because 13.5 million Americans 45 or older suffer some form of vision impairment even when wearing glasses or contact lenses.

Mr. Della Femina said he had sent a memo to the art directors at his agency, owned by top managers and the Omnicom Group, urging them to make sure the type in the ads they create is larger and more readable. He is also helping Lighthouse organize meetings to educate agencies and advertisers about the guidelines and form an advisory board to sponsor a competition of the best and worst ads in terms of readability.

"It's good business to make type large enough for people to see," Mr. Della Femina said. "It's not just altruism, it's smart."


Allison Fass, The New York Times. June 1, 2000

Copyright © 2000 The New York Times. All rights reserved.