The pandemic and coming Great Recession of 2020 has everyone restless and feeling unproductive. Brand teams worldwide are wondering. Wondering what they can do to build awareness but…tastefully. Some brands have important messages to convey, especially now. And once we pop up our collective heads from this morass we’ll want our products to still be relevant.

Consider public service campaigns. Of course the first ingredient to a tasteful PSA campaign is authenticity. But it’s actually not the most critical component. All successful PSA campaigns combine a few elements that make them memorable and effective.

Do you remember the “Say No to Drugs” campaign? You may have seen the data on its efficacy – that drug use actually increased as a direct result of the ads. So there are definitely content choices to get right. And when you get it right your brand will see decades of free, earned media. Get it wrong, and the best case is that it’s forgotten. Worst case is that you get decades of negative earned media.

There is a formula and if you follow it, you may just come out of this recession in better shape than your competitors.

The question is: “This icon should have been effective”

Fans of the game show Jeopardy are heartbroken that Alex Trebek has pancreatic cancer. So when he teamed up with AstraZeneca and Merck to drive awareness of World Pancreatic Cancer Day, it was a natural fit, right? Trebek has a huge following and is wonderfully likeable. Authenticity score of 100/100. We’ve seen celebrities endorse thousands of causes but it’s rare to have a famous person come forward who actually has such a deadly disease.

At Mattr, we see celebrity influencer campaigns often – but just in our rearview mirror. We did the math on Targeted Audience Reach and in most cases, you’ll reach more of your targeted audience through mid-level influencers (you’ll also save considerable budget). Mid-level influencers might have 100,000 Instagram followers, but are somewhat niched. They are home cooks, travel photographers, fashion buyers, or just share their lifestyle in a consistent way. They actually engage with their audience, answering questions and showing their appreciation, unlike most macro influencers or celebrities, who appear untouchable.

So what if the World Pancreatic Cancer Coalition had chosen mid-level lifestyle influencers instead of Trebek? You’d be crazy to not leverage someone as famous as Trebek, right? Maybe. By observing just a few metrics, the campaign appears to have been underwhelming; the WPCC has under 5,000 Facebook likes. The #WPCD hashtag on Instagram garnered about 11,000 posts with the highest engagement at around 800. There’s no way you could pass on Trebek, mind you, but the campaign certainly could have boosted his endorsement with more effective influencers. Could a sincere influencer without pancreatic cancer be as authentic as Trebek? Absolutely – and substantially more effective.

But authenticity is just one of the elements needed for an effective PSA campaign. 

Timing your campaign for relevance

You can categorize relevance as, specific, on-going, or seasonal. Think of Covid-19 as specific (and hopefully temporary), fighting cancer as on-going, and cold and flu as seasonal. Timing your campaign aimed at on-going issues with trending, heightened awareness can be extremely effective. 

One such example is campus sexual assault. The elevated urgency may have arisen from a study by the US Department of Education reporting reported assaults increasing from 2,356 cases in 2009 to 7,464 in 2015. The timing of the release overlaps with an Obama administration initiative in which the exigencies of reducing campus assault were underscored with the “It’s On Us” program.

The It’s On Us campaign is critically important. This video, while hilarious and popular, fails on its message delivery

One piece of content for the It’s On Us program really hit the mark for humor, leveraging strong imagery and showcasing the second component needed for a memorable PSA campaign. With nearly 3 million views, you can feel like the awareness metric is on its way, but there are issues with the content.

Timing and relevance are a solid second place to authenticity but the next component, leveraged in the “What If Bears Killed 1 in 5 People” video, has the third, and maybe most important, ingredient to being memorable, if not effective.

The Art of Humor in a PSA

Sifting humor into a serious issue like pancreatic cancer or sexual assault is no easy feat. But done successfully, you’ll have an unforgettable and effective campaign, providing millions of impressions. Creating funny content is hard enough without its purpose being a grave issue like consent. But humor can grab attention far faster than an earnest message.

Blue Seat Studios, the creative agency given this task for Consent, has the tagline, “educate with humor”. Their Consent video series balances quick wit with clever but uncomplicated messaging. 

A stellar example of humor + getting the message across effectively. A+

Achieving awareness with humor is extraordinarily difficult. One Consent video garnered over 8 million views. And weaving humor into a current event issue like Covid-19 probably couldn’t work. But it wasn’t just humor that made this series effective; there is one last element which is absolutely essential to an effective campaign.

Getting the main point across

It seems obvious, but it’s not. Your campaign content can have the most effective, authentic influencers, perfect timing, and hilarious writing. But if it ineffectively parlays the critical message of the issue, then it’s a waste of energy and budget; worse, it’s a missed opportunity to invoke change.

Interspersing the issue’s message in the content, especially if it’s humorous content, can be tricky. But it’s absolutely essential. Did the Bears video for the It’s On Us campaign actually invoked change, decreasing sexual assault reports? Of course there’s no way to directly attribute that metric with an awareness campaign. But, funny as it is, the Bears video waits until the last 13 seconds of the 2:25 minute video to pass along the key point of the campaign. Subjectively speaking, the import of the message is silenced by the star power of the actors and the unexpected metaphor. It’s too symbolic and for that reason alone gets a C- grade in efficacy. The Tea Consent video gets an A+. It’s witty and the key point of the issue of consent is interwoven throughout. 

The other aspect of messaging that has come under observation by sociologists lately is the tone. Negative, scare tactics like Say No to Drugs can backfire and we have good examples of how positive messaging can work. The now retired Director for Prevention at the University of Arizona determined that a better way to keep students from binge drinking was to demonstrate that most kids did not binge drink. Prior efforts were the same, “Say No” message of the negative effects of drinking on students’ health, and were equally ineffective.

The Real reason for the effort

Public service campaigns, effectively composed and distributed, can drive awareness to the point that change actually occurs. Campaigns combining the magic ingredients of authenticity, relevance, humor, and essential messaging can help your brand and its constituents. Content needs to be more than funny though, as we saw in the Bears video. Essential messaging, with the correct tone, needs to be the lede of the video or post, rather than buried or overshadowed.

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