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If you visit the Ad Council’s website you know what to expect; a page explaining the mission of the organization, information on how you can get involved with their programs, educational resources that can be helpful for both parents and teachers, and the prerequisite “Make a Donation” page that you’ll see on every non-profit website. What you don’t expect is a trip back to you childhood and adolescence.

Within the Ad Council’s Campaigns section, there is a page of historic public service campaigns that those of us living in the US during the 1980s and 1990s will never forget. In looking through these campaigns the thing that struck me was how each of them not only delivered a message, but also how vividly those messages reside in our memories. The campaign examples listed below were so powerful in their execution that a mere image can recall not only actual commercials, but also the message they conveyed. You will most likely recognize the campaigns before playing the video:

We remember seeing these ads as children. Sure, we may not remember exactly where we were the first time we saw them, but they made such an impact that the images and messages are branded in our memories. They reside in our autobiographical memory as part of our past experiences and ourselves. Even if we cannot relate these campaigns to a specific episode in our lives, they still reside in our long-term memory. This is significant because of the millions of ad messages the original audience for these campaigns has seen since then, there are few that we can recall quite as easily. What’s even more significant is that these ads weren’t meant to sell a product or service. They were produced for free in hopes of having a positive effect on society. These messages not only achieved their goals of public awareness and action, but also have had continued influence beyond their years.

So what was the key behind these ads’ success? What made them became embedded in the culture of America? With Vince and Larry, the Crash Test Dummies, the campaign walked a fine line. On one hand it started to evoke an emotional response from seeing the results of not wearing a seatbelt, but at the same time, it was artificial and humorous enough to still appeal to children. The humorous dialogue between Vince and Larry and the play on words used as taglines, “You could learn a lot from a dummy. Buckle your safety belt,” and “Don’t be a dummy. Buckle your safety belt,” helped to offset the negative response some consumers have to ads that evoke too much fear or discomfort. Additionally, the use of an actual crash test dummy, paired with the taglines acted as a redundant cue to reinforce the message of the ad. With the “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and “This is your brain on drugs” campaigns, the imagery as analogies (of glasses crashing as cars might and the frying egg symbolizing the effects drugs have on your brain) used in both campaigns created such an impact in the minds of the viewers that at the height of these campaigns, few could crack an egg or make a toast without being reminded of the ad messages. In these cases the imagery used to convey the messages became a retrieval cue for the memory to recall the messages.

In looking at these campaigns I wanted to see how today’s PSAs stand up to yesterday’s standards. It’s not often today that you hear discussion about anti-drug campaigns even when working in the advertising business. This is likely because many of today’s PSAs take a much different approach to relay their message. We’ve already seen discussions on this blog about how some PSAs have gotten lazy in their creative and turn to violence and shock value in an attempt to get consumers’ attention. Many of today’s PSAs, especially with regard to the anti-drug campaigns, are using such shock ads featuring excessive violence or graphic images in an attempt to garner attention. See example below:

While this ad definitely evokes a strong emotional response, it’s certainly not an image that we as viewers want to retain in our memory. In this instance, the images may be so disturbing that the viewers retain them in their short term memory, but are so appalled, that they avoid rehearsing this image in order for it not to embed in their long term memory. Some argue that today’s messages use such strong images to break through the clutter of the thousands of messages to which today’s consumers are exposed. Conversely, how effective can a message really be when the viewers not only can’t, but don’t want to recall the message. In my opinion, this makes for an ineffective campaign. If put into a situation of being offered cocaine (the drug used in the ad), a young person is not likely to recall this message when considering his or her choice.

Others PSAs are using dramatic portrayals in “slice of life” style ads to illustrate the dangerous effects of drug use. These are designed to incite a strong emotional response from viewers, but without the ill effects of graphic images shown in the ad above. I think that these can be effective. Because they make the viewer consider what their lives may be like if they were to allow themselves into those situations, however, nothing particularly memorable struck me in watching any of these PSAs. Perhaps the most successful, in terms of memory and message retention, that I viewed is an anti-heroin ad that was released four years ago:

This message is effective for multiple reasons. First and foremost, it uses an egg to represent your brain and a frying pan to illustrate the effects that drugs have on your brain. This acts as a retrieval cue for those viewers who have been exposed to the 1980s anti-drug campaign. The original campaign was so effective that it lead to strong trace strength in our semantic network from the egg and frying pan to an anti-drug message. However this ad takes those images to a new level, illustrating not only the effects of drugs (represented by the frying pan) on your brain, but also on various aspects of your life, including friends, family, job, etc. This ad illustrates very effective use of memory and retrieval, but builds to add other associations in our memories to increase the effectiveness of the original campaign. In taking a technique that had proven effective, this ad was able to build on an existing memory and strengthen its message. It’s not to say that I believe that today’s PSAs are ineffective, but in terms of the messages achieving their goals of public awareness and action, and continued influence beyond their years, it may serve today’s creative’s well to take a cue from the past.

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