Cultural Storytelling

Part of my job as an educator for my video announcements class at Goldenview Middle School is to help my students use digital media and storytelling to set school expectations. In other words, when problems need to be addressed, such as treating others with respect or picking up trash, it’s the job of my students to communicate school values and display the right thing to do. This task is accomplished by learning how to create public service announcements.

By creating PSAs, students are establishing a school culture, which is the “set of norms, values and beliefs, rituals and ceremonies, symbols and stories that make up the ‘persona’ of the school,” according to Dr. Kent D. Peterson, a professor in the Department of Educational Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

So what exactly is a public service announcement (PSA)? According to Bill Goodwill, CEO of Goodwill Communications, which specializes in PSA distributions, the FCC defines PSAs as “any announcement for which no charge is made and which promotes programs, activities or services of federal, state or local governments, or the programs, activities or services of non-profit organizations … regarded as serving community interests.” Who knew PSAs were aired at no charge? Fascinating.

Cultural Storytelling, by kklott

What’s the purpose of PSAs?

PSAs have a long history in the United States, dating back to the Civil War days when the U.S. government sold bonds by advertising in newspapers. PSA campaigns continued during the Great Depression, World War I and II. Since then, the PSA evolved from newspaper ads and posters to radio ads. “We Can Do It!” read a famous poster featuring Rosie the Riveter, a wartime icon who encouraged women to pull up their sleeves and work in the factories. 

When televisions began replacing radio as the top choice for home entertainment, so began the to PSAs that people could now hear as well as see. Furthermore, the War Advertising Council turned into what is still known today as the Ad Council. Messages about war transformed into campaign slogans such as “The mind is such a terrible thing to waste” (United Negro College Fund), “Only you can prevent forest fires” (Smokey the Bear), and “Fight Cancer with a checkup and a check” (American Cancer Society).

So what has become the purpose of using digital media for creating PSAs? According to Kenneth Abrams of Carleton College, “PSAs are advertisements designed to serve community interests by raising awareness of and modifying public attitudes about significant public issues.” Abrams wrote an article on how to use PSAs to enhance student motivation and engagement. “Creating the PSA videos enables students to apply discipline-specific knowledge and persuasion strategies, work collaboratively, think creatively, and gain technical skills.”

PSAs. A cultural bias?

On a grander scale, however, Abrams could be missing the point that creating PSAs also enable students to critically think about the values of their culture and figure out how to communicate that value in 30 seconds or less. PSAs often reference a diverse amount of cultural norms and values.

An assignment to create a PSA allows students to apply knowledge about technology, but it also allows students to examine real-life problems within a culture and use a particular type of storytelling technique to persuade an audience to change attitudes or behavior.

The big question is how to identify, or classify, those real-life problems within a culture — especially in the United States, which has become a melting pot of cultures since PSAs first started. The Ad Council makes it simple by categorizing its PSAs into four main topics: education, family, and community, health and safety. Other topics include adoption, caregiver assistance, childhood exposure to violence, teacher recruitment, hunger prevention, diversity, and inclusion.

Could someone consider these topics culturally bias? Sure, but according to the Ad Council (established in 1947) campaigns are identified through an advisory committee on public issues. According to the Ad Council website, this “think tank” is “comprised of prestigious leaders from the non-profit, business, research, academic, philanthropic, medical and public policy professions, advises the Ad Council on the nation’s most pressing social issues (on a pro bono basis).”

How effective are PSAs?

Does the Ad Council or other organizations really know if PSAs elicit change or action in the attitude of the public? Does the public volunteer more? Donate more money? Change every-day behavior to make society a better place?

According to Bill Goodwill, gathering data to answer these important questions isn’t easy, despite advancements in electronic monitoring systems for television. “There is no single reliable source for PSA data,” Goodwill wrote. “We who distribute and evaluate campaigns, have to deal with at least a half dozen different sources for PSA usage data, which range from spotty, to non-existent. As a result, all PSA distributors figure out a way to come up with the numbers they must have to plug into their client reports.”

In conclusion, with the help of reliable data and effective, concise cultural storytelling, the PSA can promote change by the following:

  • Support an organization’s mission to generate awareness and donations
  • Attract more volunteers
  • Produce more clicks on a website
  • Inspire participation in events
  • Motivate behavior and attitude change


Girl Scouts of Texas and Oklahoma. “How to Make a PSA.” YouTube. YouTube, 17 Apr. 2012. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Mejia, Michigan Radio Mercedes. “Building School Culture | A Tale of Two Cities | Michigan Radio | NPR.YouTube. YouTube, 13 May 2010. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

FuzzyMemoriesTV. “United Negro College Fund – “History Lesson” (PSA, 1981).” YouTube. YouTube, 24 Jan. 2008. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Video Archeology. “PSA – Smokey Bear – Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires! – The Advertising Council.” YouTube. YouTube, 06 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.

Goodwill, Bill. “PUBLIC SERVICE ADVERTISING.” PUBLIC SERVICE ADVERTISING. Goodwill Communications, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Abrams, Kenneth. “Student-Designed Public Service Announcement (PSA) Videos to Enhance Motivation and Engagement.” College Teaching 60.2 (2012): 84. Web.

“PSA Central – Campaigns.” PSA Central – Campaigns. N.p., n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.

Koch, Erika. “Teaching of Psychology.” “This Is a Public Service Announcement”: Evaluating and Redesigning Campaigns to Teach Attitudes and Persuasion: Teaching of Psychology: Vol 36, No 4. Teaching of Psychology, n.d. Web. 17 Feb. 2017.


Cultural Storytelling, by kklott


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