PSAs over the years, and the rising power of youth

PSAs over the years, and the rising power of youth


Sep 29, 2015

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I turned 33 last month, and as with most birthdays, I didn’t really feel like anything much had changed—until I watched the MTV Music Awards. The bright flashing colors, the parade of celebrities I’d never heard of before, and the blaring, awful music, all felt like a giant neon (or was it LED?) sign that pointed to me getting old.

A great example of this was the new Truth anti-smoking TV spots that ran during the awards. The quick cuts, viral in-jokes and infographic-esque presentation were just so different from the public service announcements I remember from my youth.

In fact, what struck me more than the style of these ads was the message – I grew up with Public Service Announcements (PSAs) that scolded me, or at least, offered to teach me something I didn’t know. These new PSAs had none of that paternalistic feel. Instead, these new PSAs position youth as the agent of their own change, suggesting that young people have the power to break from a corrupt, grown-up system.

If we think of PSAs, which are often among the most memorable and effective ads of their time, as a sort of barometer for how we see and market to each generation, then an interesting trend emerges—one of increasing respect for the power of youth. Let’s take a look back…

Baby Boomers

The earliest PSAs, like much of what was on television, were paternalistic, condescending, and cartoonishly silly – think Reefer Madness or an old fashioned workplace instructional video. Looking back at the way Boomers were talked down to, it all makes sense that they would be a generation remembered for free love and fighting the “man.”

Smokey Bear (often referred to as Smokey the Bear) has been around since 1944, but he really saw his heyday in a series of black-and-white videos featuring an unseen stern adult talking down to a cute but dumb and impressionable little boy.

The trend of awkward famous-character-as-role-model PSAs would continue through the 70s and in to the 80s.

Generation X

One of the catchiest and most iconic ad campaigns of all time, This is Your Brain on Drugs clocked in at :11 – short enough to fit in the attention span of a young person from any generation. The gritty, black and white cinematography and gruff voiceover are hallmarks of the eternally-bummed Gen X.

Marketers in the 80s and 90s were beginning to realize that it made more sense to team up with young people rather than talk down to them, a lesson that carries on through today.


As PSAs went viral, we began to see an uptick in length, content and interactivity. The early part of the millennium brought us more brutal honesty than ever, with spots such as the Gwent Police texting and driving video and others that aimed to show us the bloody consequences of our actions.

For a generation that will be remembered for both incredible growth and incredible tragedy, this feels about right.

Gen Z

Marketers have already started to see Gen Z, born in the aftermath of financial and wartime crisis, as both tech-savvy and world-savvy in a way that only precocious youth can be seen. With each passing generation and its PSAs, it feels as though we are trusting each new generation more and more with the respect and hope that they can turn their angst into something productive.

The newest Truth PSAs bring back elements of fun, but the message remains serious, and the rally-cry to action is empowering. If this style of PSA – hyper-fast, unapologetic, and full of information – is any indication of where youth marketing is headed, we should continue to see the shift further away from paternalism and further towards a mutual respect for the audience.


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Angela Knittle, Market Research Manager, Penske