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What Brands Can Learn From Viral PSAs

The humble PSA is in the middle of a renaissance. Wherever you turn online, a new breed of socially-conscious yet highly-shareable video ads come bouncing between newsfeeds, generating industry buzz and dominating user attention.

While major brands compete to outsize and outspend each other, the real champions of 2015’s ad game are the small charities, activist organisations and humanitarian groups that are using emotion and wit to channel the immense power of the Open Web towards social good.

The public service announcement, otherwise known as the public information film, is an invention of the early 20th Century, although print PSAs are said to date back to the American Civil War.

A tool by which governments, and eventually private interests, could raise awareness and spread information about social issues, the PSA has traditionally been the pro bono outlet of the savvy advertiser. For example, award-winning agency Leo Burnett successfully knocked Britons off their seats in 2013 with its drink-driving spot ‘Pub Loo Shocker’ for the UK’s Department for Transport THINK! campaign.

The topics addressed by PSAs are a marker for the concerns of the time, from pollution to nuclear threat to the AIDS crisis, and obviously some spots age better than others.

This nostalgic relationship to PSAs goes some way to explain their traditional reputation as preachy, cheesy and with lower production value than an early Peter Jackson film.

But things have changed. A quick scroll through Unruly’s Viral Video Chart reveals public service spots of all styles and topics, being shared at a rate that suggests active, passionate user engagement.

This week alone, the range is astounding. The United Nations Women Agency asks Egyptians to give their mothers their name back. A viral spot from 2014 makes a resurgence for World Down’s Syndrome Day. Microsoft’s The Collective Project’s incredible prosthetics research even enlists the help of Iron Man himself, Robert Downey Jr.

Two ads we’ve given particular attention to in recent weeks are The Ad Council’s ‘Love Has No Labels’ and Fanpage.it’s ‘Slap Her’, two stellar examples of the viral PSA.

While even the brand names suggest the sort of topic users might tune out of, the creativity and sentiment of these ads has carried them to lmillions of shares across YouTube and Facebook Video. Playing off the recent popularity of the ‘prankvert’ craze in advertising, both ads are filmed in documentary style, with real-life participants. While the spots address prejudice and domestic abuse respectively, it’s the shared elements of these two organic hits that major brands looking to go viral should pay attention to.

First of all, you can’t underestimate the element of surprise. While the issue in question may be life-changingly important, viewers won’t know about it unless they’re captivated by the advert from the first second.

As a result, PSAs now have some of the best hooks in modern advertising, whether its The Ad Council’s X-ray screen or Kids Read Mean Tweets’ pop-culture pastiche. Once viewers are drawn in, they’ll need a way to spread your message even further. While YouTube remains an important video hub, it’s not the end of the story. By releasing simultaneously on Facebook Video and optimizing for the Open Web, the most successful PSA campaigns have maximized their social spread.

But the most important lesson brands can learn from PSAs? Use emotion.

While PSAs run the gamut in style and content, all successful ones have a fundamental understanding of emotion, and its effect on viewers. Whether this means relatable moments, adorable kids or swooning, sentimental music (and, yes, there is a lot of this), research into viral sharing has shown that highly emotional, ‘high-arousal’ videos do far better than their more restrained counterparts.

This similarly leads us onto the issue of social motivation, which describes the reasons users choose to share a particular ad with their friends. This could be raising awareness, demonstrating solidarity or maybe just patting yourself on the back a little, but the fact is that it works.

While certain brands, most notably Dove, has harnessed these lessons to massive marketing gains, most marketers haven’t.

And with the current spate of hugely successful viral PSAs showing no sign of stopping, there was never a better time to sit back and take notes. Just remember: use emotions, make original, exciting content and then spread it as far and wide as the Open Web allows.