A public service announcement (PSA) or public service ad, are messages in the public interest disseminated by the media without charge, with the objective of raising awareness, changing public attitudes and behavior towards a social issue. In the UK, they are generally called Public Information films.
The earliest Public service announcements were made before and during the Second World War years in both the UK and the US.
Richard Massingham, set up one of the earliest agencies for the production of educational films in the public interest.
In the UK, the actor Richard Massingham set up the Public Relationship Films Ltd in 1938 as a specialist agency for producing short educational films for the public. In the films he typically played a bumbling character who was slightly stupider than average, and often explained the message of the film through demonstrating the risks if it was ignored. Films' topics included how to cross the road, how to prevent the spread of diseases, how to swim and how to drive without causing the road to be unsafe for other users. During the war he was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to produce films for the war effort. Massingham began to produce longer films, for both private companies and the Government, after the War.
In the US, the Ad Council (initially called the War Advertising Council) was set up in 1941, when America entered World War II. It began implementing on a massive scale the idea of using advertising to influence American society on a range of fronts. Their first campaigns focused on the country's needs during World War II, such as ecouraging the American public to invest their savings in government bonds.
After the War, PSAs were used to educate the public on a broader range of important issues. In the UK, they were produced for the Central Office of Information, and again by private contractors, which were usually small film companies, such as Richard Taylor Cartoons. They were supplied to broadcasters free of charge for them to use whenever they wished. Their usefulness as a cost-free means to fill the gaps in fixed-duration commercial breaks left by unsold advertising airtime led to their being used regularly and extensively in the 60s, 70s and much of the 80s, and consequently, within both the COI and broadcasting companies they were typically known as "fillers". They are still being produced, although the vastly reduced need for broadcasters to turn to third-party filler material to deal with unused airtime during breaks or junctions means they are now only seen rarely.
In the US, the Ad Council expanded its focus to address issues such as forest fires, blood donations and highway safety.
From time to time a charitable organization enlists the support of a celebrity for a PSA; examples include actressKathryn Erbe telling people to be green and Cripsgang leader Stanley Williams speaking from prison to urge youth not to join gangs. Some PSAs tell people to adopt animals instead of buying them. Protecting our Earth, also known as being green, is another example of a current PSA topic.
Some television PSAs have topics such as on not watching so much television, or not taking fictional shows literally; or about television, movie, or video game ratings. Public service advertising has become a significant force in changing public attitudes on topics such as drinking and driving, crime abatement and various health/safety issues. While stations have never been mandated by the FCC to use a prescribed number of PSAs, they are required to prove they broadcast in the public interest and PSAs are one of the ways they meet that requirement as part of serving as a "public trustee."
Many of these films were aimed at children and were shown during breaks in children's programmes during holidays and at weekends. The general low-budget quality and the infamous static "crackle" before them gave them a Hammer Horror style aura. Some of them were quite terrifying and remained ingrained in the child's psyche well into adulthood, others were quite humorous and used comedy to show the dangers or ridicule the folly of those who ignore them (Joe and Petunia are a good example of a comic PIF). Many of them involved or were narrated by celebrities of the day.
Public Information Films produced by the Britain's COI covered a wide range of subjects, ranging from crossing the road to surviving a nuclear attack. They are sometimes thought to concern only topics related to safety, but there are PIFs on many other subjects, including animal cruelty, protecting the environment, crime prevention and how to vote in an election or fill in a census form. The fillers listed above were for domestic consumption. However COI Films was also commissioned by the British Foreign Office to supply films for overseas use. These films dealt with research and development, British products and the British way of life. They were usually distributed through the diplomatic network but not always. Some films were sold commercially to overseas outlets, mostly television.
Some advertisements and charity appeals have gained the status of honorary PIF among fans, including Cartoon Boy, a 2002 campaign about child abuse produced by the NSPCC, while films such as the 1980s British Gasadvertisement about what to do in the event of a gas leak can be considered non-Governmental PIFs.
PIFs have a nostalgic cult following and a DVD was released in 2001 called Charley Says: The Greatest Public Information Films in the World, comprising the contents of two earlier VHS releases. A sequel was released in 2005.
One of the darker sides of this effort was the production of a series of films supporting the Mujahideen in Afghanistan during the Red Army occupation of that country. A fictionalised version of this work can be found in Val Wake's novel When the Lions are Drinking. 
In other countries
China's first PSAs in 1978 was about saving water and was broadcast on Guiyang television.
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A character played by David Prowse who advised children about crossing the road safely. An earlier road safety campaign targeted at children featured the animated squirrel "Tufty", and a Tufty Club for young children was later founded.
A series of films (never shown) advising the British public on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. They would have been shown constantly on all television channels in the build up to a war. Voiced by Patrick Allen.
A 1973 film warning children of the dangers of foolhardy behaviour around lakes and ponds. The film was shot in horror movie style with a menacing black-robed figure, featured a memorably chilling voiceover from Donald Pleasence ("I'll be back-back-back...!) and allegedly frightened and traumatised a generation of children.
Front Seat Child
A chilling film from 1977 warning you not to let a small child ride in the front of your car (from the days when it wasn't illegal not to wear a seatbelt). We see a man turn up at a park and learn throughout the course of the film that he took his daughter there in the car one day, she was in the front seat without a seatbelt and she was fatally injured on the way. We hear voiceovers describing how he has identified the body of his daughter and how the car was in good condition, but a van pulled out in front of them, causing the crash. It even mentions the fatal injuries his daughter suffered as a result. To make it even more chilling, we see a young girl on a swing, the result of the man remembering bringing his daughter to the park before the accident.
Never Go with Strangers
Narrated by Gary Watson, this 1971 film opens with brief animated sequences depicting the classic stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel, and Aladdin, warning children not to be like the title characters and to avoid putting themselves in danger. Children are encouraged to "think of a stranger's car as danger", and as a recurring theme, a stranger's car flashes red whenever a child is approached, accompanied by a dramatic synthesiser chord. In one memorable sequence, a terrified kidnapping victim is shown cowering on a sofa while the enlarged shadow of an unseen stranger engulfs her.
A series of animated PIFs about a couple whose amazing stupidity caused dangerous problems for everyone around them. They appeared in only four PIFs ("Coastguard", "Water Safety - Flags", "Country Code" and "Worn Tyres"), but their popularity grew so quickly that it was decided to kill them off in the last one. However, they were "resurrected" when "Coastguard" was remade in 2007 with updated references: Petunia is reading Hello and listening to an iPod; Joe wears a Burberry cap and phones the desktop PC-using coastguard on his mobile phone.
A film about the dangers of racing through amber lights before they turn to red.
Supersafe with SuperTed
This short 1986 film featured characters from the Welsh animated series SuperTed who were flown to Earth by SuperTed, in order to teach his friend Spotty how to cross the road safely. A flashback reveals an incident when Spotty was nearly killed by running across the road on the planet Spot (his home), to talk to his sister Blotch. After teaching Spotty the proper procedures for crossing safely, SuperTed then warns the viewer that he "can't always be there to save you, especially on planet Earth". The animated "setting" for the film was based on Castle Street in Cardiff city centre, Wales, with Cardiff Castle as a backdrop.
A man who demonstrated the correct way to park safely. His reverse parking was "a public danger", bets were laid on his performance and people came from all round to watch, until the day he got it right - "Well done! Reginald Molehusband, the safest parker in town." This film is now classified as missing and is not in the archives of either the COI or the private company, which now owns most of its archive footage, although an audio recording still exists.
A film about the importance of rear seat belts, which ran for 5 years between 1998 and 2003 with a return in 2007, and was so successful it was repeated in France. It was updated with the Think! logo in 2001.
Carry a Knife, Lose Your Life
A series of short adverts and films created to discourage people from carrying knives and to show the consequences of knife crime. The advert starts with two identical-looking people talking about an ambition in life they both share, then end with "But I never thought...". The ad then shows one person having reached their goal and pursuing a career based on their ambitions, whilst the other person explains how they thought would never get into trouble for carrying or using a knife.
Say No to Strangers
A 1981 film depicting a young girl who is approached after school by a stranger, but declines to go with him; this is followed by an extended sequence showing what might have happened had the girl accepted, followed by shorter segments stressing the importance of children not placing themselves in dangerous situations and watching out for their friends. The footage is interspersed with shots of the arcade gameGorf, used to show if the child in question made the right or wrong decision, and also features a brief clip of the "Little Red Riding Hood" animated sequence previously seen in an earlier PIF with a similar theme, Never Go with Strangers.
An anti-piracy short produced by FACT, appearing at the beginning of many commercially released VHS tapes in the UK during the middle and late 1990s. A man attempts to return a doggy copy of Trainspotting to a market-stall, complaining that the sound and picture are rubbish. The seller tries to deflect these concerns, suggesting that the customer is having trouble understanding the actors' Scottish accents and his tracking controls are set incorrectly. A narrator reminds viewers that "most pirate videos are unwatchable, and there's no comeback" before the seller then refuses a refund, saying that the customer doesn't have a receipt. The customer walks off without his tape, which the seller then immediately tries to sell again to another passer-by, with the ending tagline "Pirate Videos: Daylight Robbery."
AIDS - Don't Die of Ignorance
PIF from 1987, about the dangers of AIDS.
Fire safety film from 1974, which is shown inside a burnt house and echoes of a family screaming are heard.
LYNX - Fashion Show
Fur Trade ad from the 1980s, in which three women in fur coats enter a catwalk show, one of the coats squirts and sprays blood all over the people (including a Pee Wee Herman lookalike) at the show. It finishes with the woman pulling her coat along the floor leaving a trail of blood behind.
LYNX - Scavengers
Another Fur Trade ad from the 1980s, in which flies enter inside a fur coat and start to lay eggs inside it, a woman open the fur coat and loads of maggots drop out of it, the message at the end stating "When an animal is killed for fur, two kinds of scavengers move in. The difference is, the flies don't know any better."
Frances the Firefly
Animated Fire Kills PIF, about a young firefly named Frances. Because she's too young, her tail does not glow and she feels sad. Meanwhile a naughty cockroach named Cocky, shows her a box of matches and gives a match to her. She lights the match and flies around with it, until the flame burns her and she drops the match. The match causes a fire, the insects rebuild the buildings. It ends with Frances being told not to play with matches, and Cocky then hides and never to dare show his face again.
Another animated Fire Kills PIF, about two aliens that go strolling one day, and find a strange object lying in the moon dust. They ask their computer what it is. The computers tells them it's a lighter and they are very dangerous, children must not touch them. Later at night one of aliens go out and secretly brings the lighter inside. Which causes to set the house on fire. It ends with the alien building the computer back, and his little sister only comes to visit him. The alien replies to his sister, 'NEVER PLAY WITH LIGHTERS!, then the girl alien replies 'AND NEVER PLAY WITH MATCHES EITHER!'.