The Application of Persuasion Theory
to the Development Of Effective Proenvironmental
Public Service Announcements
Renee J. Bator*
State University of New York, Plattsburgh
Robert B. Cialdini
Arizona State University
The goal of this article is to provide specific guidelines to help create effective proenvironmental public service announcements (PSAs). Campaign designers are encouraged to initially identify and investigate the optimal target audience and then draft and test reactions by samples of that audience using pilot messages.Designers are also advised to consider research on attitude persistence, memory,
and social norms and apply this research to the message content and presentation style. The article concludes with an application of research from social psychology to a series of overall guidelines for effective PSAs. If environmental campaign developers follow these specifications, the chance of PSA success should be enhanced.
Public service announcements (PSAs) are designed to inform or induce certain behaviors in specific audiences, generally for noncommercial profit using mass media-approaches (adapted from Rogers & Storey, 1987, by Rice & Atkin,1989). The advantage of using PSAs to promote prosocial behavior is due in part totheir ability to efficiently and repeatedly penetrate a large target population, with
the possibility of relying on highly respected sources as spokespersons (Hornik,1989). One of the best-known environmental PSAs was presented in the 1970s.
The Iron Eyes Cody messages featured a heavily littered environment and a Native American with a tear in his eye and the slogan, “People start pollution; people can stop it.” Since its original airing in 1971, the PSA has been seen by an estimated 50 million Americans (Dwyer, 1999). In 1997, it was named one of the top 50 commercials of all time by Entertainment Weekly (Dwyer, 1999). Although this message certainly elicits emotional reactions from viewers, this article will point out a possible flaw in the message, along with suggestions for creating an even stronger PSA.
Although there is a great deal of persuasion research that addresses attitude change and corresponding behavior change, PSAs are typically designed without taking advantage of this information. roenvironmental campaigns face a special problem, because the messages attempt to direct a behavior that does not occur until a later time. The goal of this article is to provide specific guidelines to help create effective proenvironmental PSAs.
When developers of proenvironmental PSAs neglect to consider basic principles derived from mass-media communications research, their efforts to bring about behavioral change are likely to be unsuccessful. A great deal of research has examined the importance of identifying a target audience, learning about their attitudes and behaviors related to the target issue, and then pilot testing responses to preliminary versions of the message. Based on previous research, Mendelsohn
(1973) found that public information campaigns have a relatively high probability of success if (1) campaign developers assume that most audiences are likely to be only mildly interested in the message, (2) middle-range goals are set (e.g., developers feel confident that simple message exposure will lead to the desired information gain or change in behavior), and (3) the target audience is thoroughly investigated in terms of demographics, lifestyles, values, and mass-media habits. Mendelsohn
described three information campaigns that were highly successful because each of their designs reflected close collaboration between social scientists and communications specialists.