We can all remember that famous PSA from the Partnership for Drug-Free America (now the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids) depicting a fried egg sizzling in a pan as “your brain on drugs,” and the iconic visual has made its way back to our TV screens with some modern-day updates. The decades-old original PSA ends abruptly with “Any questions?” while the organization’s new take on the PSA opens with “Any questions?” and takes on questions parents may face from their children about drugs.

PSAs from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) will always stand out to us. The initial “don’t drink and drive” PSA approach has been modernized with moving “don’t text and drive” visuals. It’s footage that really hits close to home.

But what makes these PSAs so impactful? How can we create PSAs as part of our healthcare campaigns today that leave a lasting impression?  PSAs are an important part of our client work. They add an extra layer of impact and urgency around a particular topic, but not every PSA has that same level of impact. I spoke to Jillian Breslin at MultiVu to uncover the ingredients to making a memorable PSA.

Jillian, what makes some of these iconic PSAs so memorable?

For me, it’s nostalgia. The revival of these old, familiar campaigns evoke nostalgia for today’s generation of parents. They remember that campaign well, so seeing the imagery at the top of the PSA draws them right back in.

These PSAs don’t include celebrities – do we need fame in a PSA to make an impact anymore?

Not always, but when you do use a celebrity we’re finding that having them address the camera with a sad expression and sad music (i.e., “the Sarah McLaughlin effect”) isn’t as impactful anymore. For example, we used Pamela Anderson in the National Limousine Association PSA against ride-hailing apps. Instead of having Anderson sharing her personal history to the camera, we created a spinoff of a classic 1970’s dating show and had her act as a contestant who then interviews three eligible drivers to find the safest drive home. Symbols and characters like Smokey the Bear, the Crash Test Dummies, or McGruff the Crime Dog have become their own category of celebrity in PSAs too.

When it comes to impact, the element of surprise or hidden camera factor come into play more and more in PSAs, like we see in the “Love Has No Labels” PSA.

What would you say are the ingredients to a PSA that leaves a lasting impression?

Relatable emotion and inspiring the desire to share are today’s key PSA ingredients. And gone are the days of scaring your audience into action. Watching something too horrifying can cause some people to tune out completely.  Today’s PSAs need to possess some kind of share motivation – ranging from “look I support important causes” to “this made me feel something and I want you to feel it too.”

In your opinion, what are some of the most successful PSAs in the healthcare space?

Dear 16-Year-Old Me” is one of my all-time personal favorites as it is based on relatable emotion that grabs you right away. These people are addressing their younger selves about regrets – something we all have. And there’s nothing particularly fancy about it – no celebs or elaborate sets – just average people against a simple backdrop. And the surprise element is there too – it isn’t until the 27 second mark that we find out it is about skin cancer and by then you are already reaching for the tissues.

So the next time you’re tasked with developing an idea for a PSA remember the emotions that leave a lasting impression – nostalgia, motivation to share, and the element of surprise.  “Sadvertising” and scaring your audience may not leave the lasting impression you’re hoping for. We can’t expect our next PSA to be as memorable as “your brain on drugs,” but we can certainly learn from the elements of those iconic shoots.