Effective Non-profit Commercials and PSAs

A television commercial or public service announcement (PSA) can grab audience attention and create a powerful emotional response in a short period of time. If done right, visuals in motion will do two things: help your target audience remember the message and the non-profit behind it.

The Difference Between the Two

Before getting into how to produce an effective non-profit commercial or PSA, it is important to understand the difference between the two. A commercial is an advertisement that airs for a specific amount of time and is paid for by a company. It is that company’s intention to invest in the ad to entice people to buy. Public Service Announcements or PSA’s on the other hand, are run on TV for free. A PSA sponsor requests a time-slot from a TV network and in some cases a fee is charged when that station agrees to play the PSA in a specific time slot. There are restrictions on the type of content that can be included in a PSA. For instance, a PSA can’t be used in an effort to raise money for a cause or recruit volunteers.

Since most of us have been inundated with commercials, we’ll give an example of a PSA so you have a sense of the difference. Best Buddies is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to establishing one-to-one friendships, employment opportunities and leadership development for people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. They’ve produced a number of PSA’s. Here’s one example:

Producing Effective Ads

So how do you make an effective commercial or PSA? While the content will naturally depend on the nature of your non-profit, there are certain storytelling techniques that are effective in getting the message across. Consider the following tips if you’re thinking about a commercial or PSA to promote your cause:

  • Be clear – Using both visual and verbal cues, as well as your non-profit name and logo throughout the commercial or PSA can be helpful. Using clear language is also important.
  • Create a story – If you really think about it, the best commercials and PSA’s don’t just sell something, they tell a story. Your non-profit story could be humorous or heart wrenching, but it needs to be something that the audience can relate to.
  • Think simple – You should keep your storyline simple since you only have 30-60 seconds to get your message across.
  • Use inspiring music – The right music along with visuals can inspire an audience to act.
  • Involve real people – Nothing is more authentic than the people who are affected by a real-life issue your non-profit is trying to resolve. See if the people you are trying to serve want to be involved in your commercial or PSA.

Examples of Effective Non-profit Commercials and PSAs

Feeding South Dakota produced this commercial that covers many of the points we outline above. They used a relatable subject, as well as a straightforward script and simple props to relay an important message about hunger.

While few non-profits have the power and money that RED does, the charity formed by mega star Bono did an outstanding job with the following commercial, which was first shown at a rock concert in 2014. It takes story-telling to a whole new level, while still being clear.

The PSA below, created by Big Brothers and Sisters in 2011 uses music to make it uplifting, inspiring, and memorable without spending big bucks.

Each of these examples is different, yet potent. While some people may be saying to themselves: ‘My organization can’t possibly afford a fancy commercial or PSA”, the reality is that you don’t have to employ expensive graphics or editing techniques. As mentioned in our tips list, using real people and taking a simple approach can be very impactful. Take for instance, the Kids Cancer Project in Australia. A number of years ago they used real patients, not actors, to produce a commercial that asked for help in eradicating kids cancer. Creative production companies say this remains a viable technique today.


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