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Public Service Announcement

A public service announcement or PSA is a non-commercial advertisement, typically on radio or television, broadcast for the public good. They are used mainly to modify public attitudes by raising awareness about a specific issue. Like commercial advertisements, they are short, typically ranging from 15 to 90 seconds in length. A PSA distributed only on the Internet does not need to conform to television standards and can therefore be any reasonable length.

Making a PSA for your organization or for an issue that you care about, will teach you much of what you need to know about producing longer videos. If you do well, then your organization and the issue you want to promote will benefit from the distribution of your final product. Television stations don't charge you to air PSAs, so in addition to any free web-based distribution you might take advantage of, your PSA, if done well and in a broadcast quality format, could also play on television.

What you can expect if you want to make a PSA with DC Visions & Video Exchange: Often the hardest part of creating a good PSA is coming up with a concept, an idea, the story, a gimmick or hook that catches your audiences attention. Advertising agencies get paid really big bucks for a good concept. When a campaign is successful, it's well worth the price. Unfortunately, DC Visions is not an advertising agency. We'll help you with this part of the project, but cannot guarantee coming up with a good concept for you. You should try to generate some ideas of your own before you come to us with a request to shoot a PSA. The following are some tips that should get you started.

The script for a PSA, like a commercial advertisement, tends to follow a fairly standard formula - state the problem, state the solution, link the audience to the solution. They don't always go in that order, but when trying to persuade someone to act, whether the act is to buy a product, to make a donation or support a cause, those three points will help you to structure an argument that's solid and easy to follow. If you listen carefully to the ads on television, you will see how often they follow this format. So, before you begin searching for your concept, give it some context. Gather your people around a table and flipchart to write up your answers. (You'll be just like those wacky folks at the advertising agency, only you'll be using your creativity to change the world for the better rather than sell a product to the public that they probably don't need.) Begin by defining these three points.

State the Problem: What is the problem that you hope the PSA will help you address? The more specific you can be the better. Your organization may be trying to solve several interdependent problems. List all of them.

State the Solution: Next make a list of solutions - not pie-in-the-sky solutions, but solutions that you and your organization believe to be genuinely viable. If your list of solutions is composed of steps that your organization is taking to address the problems on your list so much the better. Ultimately, these will be easier to illustrate.

Link the Audience to the Solution: What is the relationship between the audience and the solution that you've articulated. How can they help to bring that solution about? Do they need to alter their behavior, join your organization, donate money, etc? Again, be specific.

Define Your Thesis: At this point, you should be able to put together at least one problem, one solution and one clear link to your audience to structure a thesis that will be the basis for your PSA. If you've been thorough, you'll probably be able to structure several of these based on your lists of problems and solutions. In the end, you will need to pick just one. Don't be concerned if the link to the audience, or call to action, is the same for each argument. Don't be concerned if in fact you have only one thesis in the end. Sometimes the problem and the solution are so obvious and straightforward, that brainstorming is not even necessary.

Illustrate Your Thesis: Once you've defined your thesis, the next step is to come up with a concept that best illustrates it. Here's where you'll want to be your most creative, so make sure you include every idea, no matter how ludicrous it may seem at the moment. It's nice if you can come up with something that uses visuals effectively. Who can forget the frying egg as drug-induced brain? The script is extremely simple, "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Get the message?";

Problem: Drugs can fry your brain.

Solution: Don't use drugs.

Link to Audience: This means you.

Another simple, yet potentially powerful option is to make a PSA using archival footage, home movies or even photographs. The images can be cut together with titles or placed over narration. Mothers Against Drunk Driving uses this technique very powerfully when they show some little girl performing in a recital or opening Christmas presents, then they cut to a title that reveals the child has died at the hands of a drunk driver. Problem: Innocent people die when people drive under the influence of alcohol. Solution: Don't drive drunk. Don't let your people drive drunk. This solution may not be explicitly illustrated in the commercial, but it is clearly implied. Link to the Audience: That means you.

Visuals are great, but let's not forget the power of words. Video is both a visual and an oral medium. A spoken description of the problem that you want to address may prove to be your most effective illustration. In which case, you may end up with a product that works just as well on the radio as it does on television. The simplest kind of PSA is often this kind of a testimonial where, an expert stands up in front of the camera and tells what he or she knows. It can be terribly effective, especially if your "expert"; is personally and emotionally connected to the issue. Take for instance Michael J. Fox, who is afflicted with Parkinson's Disease, asking the public to support candidates who favor stem-cell research, which might lead to a cure. Here the problem is two-fold: Good people get bad diseases. Stem cell research might lead to a cure, but it is not all stem cell research is legal. The solution is to make stem cell research universally legal. The link to the audience is to elect candidates who will change the law accordingly.

Finally, there is the demonstration or reenactment. Following a plot (an extremely short plot in the case of a PSA) that shows people trying to deal with the problem that needs solving is the basis not only for most commercials, but for any narrative-based video production. In this way you not only make a dramatic demonstration of the problem, but a dramatic demonstration of the solution as well.

Here's an example that does not actually exist.

Let's imagine that your organization's mission is to make sure every child in the city learns to read by the third grade. In this case, there are plenty of options for illustrating the problem. You could show a bunch of third graders struggling with a Dick and Jane reader. You could show a teenager unwilling to help his younger brother with his homework because he himself can't read. You could have an ex-gang member talking about the importance of book learning over "street smarts". Or what might be better, have a current gang member talk about how learning how to handle yourself on the street is far more important than getting good grades in school.

Your PSA starts with an establishment shot of a prison; then you cut to a teen-ager in a prison GED class surrounded by "hardened criminals." A narrator says, "if you don't want to get schooled in this institution, make sure you get schooled in this one."; Then the image changes to the same teenager eagerly raising his hand in a high school classroom.

This concept certainly illustrates one problem that can occur when children don't learn to read. It's fabulous when you come up with a great way to illustrate your problem, but it's even better when you can also come up with a great way to connect that problem with the solution you are proposing. If we imagine that your organization is trying to reach the goal of teaching every child in the city to read through a tutoring program for elementary school children, then the image of teenagers in prison ostensibly because they haven't done well in school might not work so well. The problem is related, but is not directly solved by a tutoring program that targets only elementary school children.

In this case, the third grader struggling with the Dick and Jane reader might work better. Suppose you start with a close up of the kid trying to read the book, then you lower the kids voice and bring up a narrator who states a statistic like, "Washington, DC has the largest percentage of third graders either reading below grade level or unable to read at all." The child then slams the book down in frustration. For a moment the audience is disheartened. Then the camera pulls back, and a tutor sitting next to the child picks up the book and helps the struggling student sound out the words. As the tutor and child work together, their voices are lowered and the narrator's voice comes up again. This time he says, "Our tutoring program has raised the reading level of 85 percent of the students who participate. It's free and any elementary school student living within the District of Columbia is welcome to join us. For more information contact (program information goes here)." The visuals are still strong, but this time we illustrate the problem in a way that can be directly impacted by the solution. You're also looking at much lower production values if you can find a child and a tutor actually in the program willing to volunteer to be in your PSA.

Pricing out a public service announcement depends entirely on the concept. A simple testimonial is all about the script, the location, the lighting and capturing a sincere performance from your expert. If you go with one camera angle, not at all uncommon, then editing is all about deciding which take to use. Similarly, a PSA that relies on footage or photographs that have already been archived can cut your expenses even further. In this case you might not need to shoot anything, only edit together existing material and come up with titles that tie your piece together. If your concept follows a scripted plot that requires several locations or the hiring of actors etc., then you could be talking about a fairly major production. On the other hand, this kind of PSA also requires a storyboard, in which case editing is usually minimal, unless you want to use special effects, contract out for original music, etc.

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