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How Public Service Ads Could Be Greatly Improved

Maybe it was more than a coincidence that public service advertising was the one category in which the American Association of Advertising Agencies did not present an O'Toole Award for creativity at its annual conference last month.

Public service advertising, at least in print form, is not connecting effectively with consumers, and there are ways it could be better, according to a new report by Andy Goodman, an independent communications consultant who focuses on public-interest groups and foundations.

The report, "Why Bad Ads Happen to Good Causes and How to Ensure They Won't Happen to Yours," begins with a study of 195 public-interest print ads and is followed by seven guidelines for creating more effective ones. The Starch division of RoperASW, part of the NOP World Company, conducted the study and provided data for the guidelines.

"Those of us who feel deeply about causes recognize that there's a huge opportunity for them to do better advertising," said Philip Sawyer, senior vice president and director at Starch in New York, "and also recognize that they had missed an opportunity by not creating more powerful advertising."

The report, for nonprofit organizations as well as executives or agencies that serve them, looks at ads published from 1990 to 2000 in magazines like Business Week, Glamour, Rolling Stone and Vogue. It studied ads for several organizations, including the American Heart Association, the National Mental Health Association, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America and the Sierra Club.

The ads were judged according to three criteria: the percentages of readers who remembered having seen an ad in the selected issue, who recalled the name of the advertiser or campaign, and who read at least half the written material. The results were compared with those of other ads in the same publication as well as to just the public service ads.

"Relatively rare is the ad for a nonprofit organization that earns high readership scores," Mr. Sawyer said in the report, "and quite common are those that rank among the lowest ads in a given issue of a publication we have studied."

About two dozen ads are reproduced in the report, along with written explanations of what is good and what is bad about each ad. For example, an ad for Save the Children in Westport, Conn., with a photo of a baby's feet, received below-average scores.

"Among subjects for a photograph in an advertisement, babies are one of the most powerful `eye magnets' available," reads the report. "Starch data confirms this, but the company's research also shows that the way the baby is depicted is critically important."

Because the ad included a direct response order form, Save the Children calculated that the ad reached 8 percent of its goal. Amanda Akel, advertising manager at Save the Children, who was not involved in the creation of the ad, responded in the report: "Showing the baby's feet is not telling much of a story, so I'm not surprised."

The ad showed that problems with public service advertising may not lie solely with advertising.

"If you're pushing something like Coke, McDonald's or Nike, those are products people are familiar with and may already have good feelings about," said Mr. Goodman, who is based in Los Angeles. "But if you want to talk about hunger, worldwide reproductive rights, gun control, global warming, those are things people may find confusing, upsetting, maybe they don't really want to think about them."

The first three guidelines for more effective advertising are: "Capture the reader's attention like a stop sign and direct it like a road map," "Make an emotional connection before attempting to convey information" and "Write headlines that offer a reason to read more."

The project, including the 5,000 copies that have been printed, was financed with $154,500 from five organizations: the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York; the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, N.J.; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation in Los Altos, Calif.; the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia; and the Surdna Foundation in New York.

A booklet and an insert intended for use on the job by employees of nonprofit organizations were designed by Cause Communications in Santa Monica, Calif. Organizations and their agencies can order the report at Mr. Goodman's Web site, www.agoodmanonline.com. Mr. Goodman has already given away 1,000 copies.

"There's so many well-intentioned people in the not-for-profit world that try to put together communication," said Peggy Conlon, president and chief executive at the Advertising Council in New York, which coordinates about 40 public service campaigns. "The more they can be told what works or what doesn't work, the more effective it will be."

John Passacantando, executive director for the United States operations of Greenpeace in Washington, who learned about the report while attending a presentation by Mr. Goodman, said he was ordering copies for his communications staff.

"This won't make people great copywriters," Mr. Passacantando added, "but it will at least give people a lot more of the right questions to ask."


ALLISON FASS, The New York Times Company May 8, 2002

Copyright © 2002 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.