Faces of Public Health: Peggy Conlon, Ad Council

May 30, 2013, 12:15 PM

file Peggy Conlon, Ad Council

“We know PSA campaigns can make a big impact; that they can improve people’s lives.”

The Advertising (Ad) Council has just launched a new version of its digital distribution platform, PSA Central, which is geared toward PSA directors and media outlets, but is also valuable for anyone who wants to share the messages including educators and public health practitioners. The site offers easy access to video, print, radio, online, mobile and outdoor media public service advertisements that range from bullying prevention to food safety education.

Public Service Advertisements (PSAs) may actually date back to the civil war when newspapers offered free advertising space to the U.S. government to advertise bonds whose revenues were used to pay for the war effort. These days, PSAs are much more likely to be public safety messages such as a United Kingdom video PSA, downloaded over 2 million times on YouTube, reminding people just why they should buckle up in a car. And more importantly, these efforts are being measured and tracked to show impact on health behavior change and health outcomes, such as the Ad Council’s drunk driving prevention campaign that has encouraged 70 percent of Americans to take action to stop a friend from driving drunk.

Ad Council's iconic Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk campaign

NewPublicHealth recently spoke with Peggy Conlon, president and CEO of the Ad Council, about the public health messages PSAs can convey and how new media has expanded their reach.

NewPublicHealth: How have PSAs evolved over the years?

Peggy Conlon: PSAs have evolved quite a bit. The Ad Council is 71 years old and back in the earliest days PSAs were seen in newspapers and heard over the radio. Since then they have been showcased on just about all media platforms. In the 90s we were introduced to the Internet and everything changed forever. The Internet added another new dimension to our ability, in a very tangible and personal way, to engage communities around social issues.

NPH: What are some of the most effective and iconic campaigns in public service advertising?

file Smokey Bear and his famous warning, "Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires"

Peggy Conlon: Our oldest and best-known iconic figure is Smokey Bear, who was born in 1944. The U.S. Forest Service tracks the reduction in acreage lost to wildfires, and that has been dramatically reduced from 22 million annually to an average of 6.5 million each year because of Smokey. Research we’ve done over the years finds Smokey is almost as well-known as Santa Claus, and he’s also been modernized to make him contemporary. Smokey’s brand is actually controlled by Congress and he’s not allowed to speak but social media has given him a voice on Facebook where he has about 100,000 followers and he tweets and blogs on The Huffington Post.

NPH: What accounts for Smokey’s very impressive impact?

Peggy Conlon: I think it’s that he has a simple message—telling people to take personal responsibility when they’re interacting with the forest and areas that could fall victim to wildfires. And you can see tangible outcomes from that message.

file Smokey Bear is now on Twitter

Having an actionable message is what makes PSAs so effective. Thirty years ago, we were a society with this catch phrase: “Let’s have one more for the road.” Now it’s “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk.” The PSA resulted in not just behavioral changes, but social norming changes. It’s just no longer acceptable to see someone who is clearly alcohol impaired and let them drive.

NPH: What are some other memorable campaigns that have impacted a culture of health?

Peggy Conlon: Our public service campaigns really reflect the social condition of the country. Coming out of World War II, we were addressing eradicating polio and promoting blood drives. Then we transitioned into things such as litter prevention (“Keep America Beautiful”) in the ‘60s. But if you look at our work over the ‘70s and the ‘80s, it really reflected what I would call the cultural revolution of our country. We have the United Negro College Fund, “A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste,” which really focused on racial equality and education. We had AIDS prevention messages (Help Stop AIDS, Use a Condom) as well. The suite of campaigns that we had that reflected what was going on in our country at the time.

We had campaigns in the ‘80s and early ‘90s addressing the race riots in Los Angeles. We had messaging in the early 2000s after the shootings at the high school in Columbine, Colorado. Over the last five to six years, we’ve been looking at messages to address the economic crisis such as helping people get counseling on foreclosure prevention. We’ve also been working on PSAs involving obesity prevention for the last twelve years and we introduced PSAs about autism recognition that resulted in a doubling of the numbers of parents of young children who consulted with their pediatrician about the signs of autism. We’ve got a safe gun storage campaign that we’re working on right now that comes out of the Vice President’s Task Force that was formed after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut.

Ad Council Childhood Obesity Prevention campaign

NPH: How do you measure the impact of the PSAs?

Peggy Conlon: The first is we do primary research on awareness, attitudes and behaviors against the target audience and we benchmark that at the beginning of the campaign and then we track it over time so we can watch the needle move.

The second thing we look at is engagement. We can do the web analytics to be able to see how many people went to the site, what they did when they were online, how long were they online, what they downloaded—those kinds of things. And, of course, the social media platforms have a lot of metrics that you can measure as well.

Thirdly, we assemble all of these together and look for patterns and most importantly, for impact.

NPH: What are some additional examples of the impact a PSA can have?

Peggy Conlon: We know that over the past 30 years, our campaign with the Department of Transportation on promoting seat belt use has resulted in over 260,000 lives saved and increasing the percentage of Americans who buckle up from 14% to 85%. We know that our foster care adoption campaign, because the adoption process begins online, has resulted in about 17,000 adoptions from foster care. And about a million people have gone to the website to learn about scheduling counseling sessions for foreclosure prevention.

Crash test dummies campaign to encourage seat belt use

NPH: How do PSAs from the Ad Council come about?

Peggy Conlon: They are generated by our staff as well as by organizations that come to us with ideas. For PSAs that are originated in-house, we as a staff work with our advisory committee on social issues to identify issues that we feel are important to address and then we reach out to the government agencies or nonprofits that are experts in that area to try to partner with them. The agencies and groups pay the out-of-pocket costs for such things as talent, production crews and video editing; and the time from the creatives and media work is free. An average campaign gets around $30 million in donated media time.

And sometimes organizations come to us about creating a campaign. We wouldn’t have known, for example, what a critical issue children’s oral health was if we hadn’t been approached by the dental associations who formed a coalition to help talk to particularly low-income families about brushing two times a day, two minutes each to prevent dental decay. Whether we originate an idea or not, before we can take on a campaign it has to be approved by the Executive Committee of our Board of Directors.

NPH: How else has the Internet changed how campaigns are run, viewed and interacted with?  

Peggy Conlon: One of the things that’s changed about PSA development is that it’s no longer that an agency comes in and develops television ads, radio ads, outdoor ads, print ads and then we get the media against it and they can go away and come back a year or so later and freshen the creative work and they’re good to go for another year. It’s really a 365-day-a-year job now because of the Internet. Depending on the audience, we’ve developed the appropriate digital and social media platforms for all of our campaigns. They all have Facebook pages. I think most of them tweet. We use Tumblr and Instagram and all of the other platforms that have emerged. And digitally, we have relationships across the board with people that are delivering content online.

NPH: What do you see ahead for PSAs?

Peggy Conlon: We’re doing a lot of things here specifically at the Ad Council to drive the digital adoption of our messages. I think we have such a long history with the more traditional media platforms like television and radio and outdoor that we have great partnerships for stimulating media and getting the assets out to them. But the Internet is changing all the time and there are great technology solutions to being able to reformat and plug into the various digital and social platforms and I think over the next couple of years, we’ll see just incredible progress there.

>>Bonus Link: Click here to see some of the Ad Council’s classic PSA campaigns

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.