Six of the Best PSAs of All Time

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Public service announcements can be powerful ways to motivate people to change their behavior or take action. The most effective PSAs force people to think about things in a new way. The PR and advertising professionals who create them must master the art of getting an emotional response from viewers even in moments they aren’t prepared for it. Here are some of the most effective, and iconic ones of all time.

“This is your brain on drugs.”

This three sentence PSA on the dangers of drug use is so iconic that you’ve probably heard the phrase “This is your brain on drugs,” even if you are too young to have seen the ad which was produced by the Partnership for a Drug Free America in 1987. It is widely recognized by experts as one of the most influential PSAs ever.

“I learned it by watching you.”

That same year, the Partnership for a Drug Free America reminded parents that they have a role to play in keeping kids away from drugs. I like to call this one, “Oh, Snap!”

“You could learn a lot from a dummy.”

It took the US Department of Transportation to give crash test dummies a personality and remind us all to buckle up. Here’s just one of a series of ads that began running in 1985.

“Only you can prevent forest fires.”

Smokey the Bear, a creation of the US Ad Council has been reminding us that fire prevention is our responsibility since his debut in 1944. He’s been in commercials, cartoons, posters, and comic strips. For his 50th birthday, he even got his own postage stamp.

“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.”

This spot from the Ad Council which was released in 1983 was so effective that 68% of Americans reported that they tried to prevent a friend from driving after drinking. It is hard to believe, but before this ad, “Designated driver,” was not a thing.

“People start pollution. People can stop it.”

Known as “The Crying Indian,” this compelling ad from an organization called Keep America Beautiful first launched on Earth Day in 1971.  The PSA won two Clio awards and the campaign was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th Century by Ad Age Magazine. It is easy to see why by the end of the campaign, Keep America Beautiful local teams had helped to reduce litter by as much as 88% in 300 communities, 38 states, and several countries.

Each of these campaigns was effective enough to make a difference. Some, like Smoky the Bear and the Crash Test Dummies, take a lighthearted approach to serious issues, while others attack the problem more abruptly. They are all excellent examples of impactful storytelling.


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