Creating Effective PSAs for Health Communications


An important challenge for policy makers is designing effective methods to communicate health risks and developing the best methods to promote consumer awareness of the potential dangers of various products (e.g., cigarettes). Indeed, a great deal of time, effort, and money is invested each year in the creation of public service announcements (PSAs). For example, in 1998, the U.S. Congress allocated $1 billion to the Office of National Drug Control Policy for mass-media prevention campaigns and evaluations (Rucker and Petty 2006). These PSAs were designed to inform consumers about the potential dangers of various substances, such as tobacco and alcohol, and maladaptive behaviors, such as engaging is unprotected sex and not wearing a seatbelt. The goal of these efforts is to help consumers help themselves by providing them with a reasonable understanding of the associated risks of these products and behaviors.

Perhaps one of the most important goals lying at the intersection of public policy and marketing is the development of effective methods of communicating risk information to consumers that will produce more healthful behaviors. This is not a simple task, and efforts to communicate risk information to consumers have given way to mixed results. Some streams of research have shown that health communications in advertising have significantly influenced consumers’ awareness of health risks and health-relevant attitudes and behaviors. For example, Ippolito and Mathios (1991) discuss how advertising the link between fiber intake and the reduced risk of colon cancer increases consumers’ knowledge of the health benefits of fiber intake. Unfortunately, scholars have also noted that the effectiveness of other campaigns has been more modest. For example, Hankin, Sloan and Sokol (1998) conclude that the utility of warning labels in reducing alcohol consumption during pregnancy was only slightly effective, and a review of the effectiveness of several antismoking advertising campaigns found that several campaigns had mixed or even ineffective results (Pechmann and Reibling 2000). In recognition of the challenges in communicating risk information and in changing consumers’ attitudes and behaviors (e.g., Stewart and Martin 1994) researchers have made efforts to prescribe methods for designing optimal communication strategies (e.g., Bettman, Payne and Staelin 1986).

Health risks associated messages in the media usually take the form of PSAs. Essentially, PSAs are persuasive communications that are designed to alert consumers to risks associated with using a particular product or substance or engaging in a particular behavior. These are messages designed to change people’s specific beliefs (e.g., safe or unsafe) or more global attitudes (e.g., good or bad) about a particular product (e.g., cigarettes) or action (wearing seatbelts) and, ultimately, their behaviors. As such, it is believed that such messages can draw on the extensive and well-developed literature on persuasion and attitude change to enhance their effectiveness. In particular, this paper is to focus on how to create effective PSAs for health risks associated communications by applying the elaboration likelihood model of persuasion (Petty and Cacioppo 1986) and cognitive dissonance theory about attitude changes (Festinger 1957).

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