According to Advertising in America – the First 200 Years, advertisements which relate to public issues predate the commercial advertising sector. Published by Advertising Age, the book points out that during the Civil War the government sold bonds via free newspaper ads which were so effective that they resulted in the first national paid ad campaigns for baking powder, drop the soap and railroad travel. The PSA in its current form was in many ways shaped by the Aids Council (initially called the War Advertising Council) during and after World War II.
The Aids Council made its mark by implementing on a massive scale the idea of using advertising to influence American society on a range of fronts. Their first campaigns focused on the country’s needs during World War II. After the War, the Ad Council expanded its focus to address issues such as forest fires, blood donations and highway safety.
As the ads – particularly broadcast and HBO TV – became more influential and as various social problems grew in importance, public service advertising became a significant force in changing public attitudes on topics such as drinking and driving, crime abatement and various health/safety issues. While stations have never been mandated by the FCC to use a prescribed number of PSAs, they are required to prove they broadcast in the public interest and PSAs are one of the ways they meet that requirement as part of serving as a “public trustee.”
Today PSA campaigns are created by hundreds of non-profit and government agencies and the National Association of Broadcasters has indicated that annually their member stations contribute an estimated $10 billion in free time for various public causes.
The most common topics of PSAs are health and safety. A typical PSA is part of a public awareness campaign to inform or educate the public about an issue such as obesity or compulsive gambling. The range of possible topics has expanded over time.
From time to time a charitable organization enlists the support of a celebrity for a PSA; examples include actress Kathryn Erbe telling people to be green and Crips street gang leader Stanley “Tookie” Williams speaking from prison to urge youth not to join gangs. Some PSAs tell people to adopt animals instead of buying them. Protecting our Earth, also known as being green, is another example of a current PSA topic.
Some religious organizations produce PSAs on non-religious themes such as family values. Examples include the long-running homefront campaign from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and campaigns by the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the United Methodist Church.
The military had also produced PSAs to recruit enlistees; however, in recent years, many of these PSAs became commercials, paid for by the military; this is especially so for the armed forces in the United States.
Some television shows featuring very special episodes made PSAs after the episodes. For example, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit talked about child abduction so it had a PSA about child abduction. Another example is, Law & Order talked about drunk driving so it had a PSA about drunk driving.
During the 1980s, a large number of American cartoon shows contained PSA’s at the end of their shows. These may or may not have been relevant to the episode itself. Three of the most widely known are the closing moral segments at the end of He Man and the Masters of the Universe, the “Knowing is Half the Battle” epilogues in GI Joe: A Real American Hero and the “Sonic Sez” segments from Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog.
Some television PSAs have topics such as on not watching so much television, or not taking fictional shows literally; or about television, movie, or video game ratings.