Archive for February 2010

Drama in a PSA

February 26, 2010

Watch this extraordinary 90-second public service announcement made by the Brits, then learn about the history of PSAs.

A public service announcement is an advertisement made for radio or television that serves the public interest and is broadcast free of charge. PSAs seek to modify public attitudes, and the most common topics of PSAs are public health and safety. Political campaign ads are not PSAs. They serve a candidate, not the public interest.

PSAs arose with the entry of the United States into World War II. Radio broadcasters and ad agencies offered their skills and facilities to support the war effort and to exhort citizens to buy War Bonds. By the end of the war, the practice of volunteering free air time had become standard.

Health professionals credit PSAs with saving millions of lives by initiating the decline of smoking in the United States. At one time, broadcast stations carried an anti-smoking PSA for every three tobacco commercials. The PSAs proved so effective that smoking rates began to decline for the first time in history, the tobacco industry withdrew all cigarette advertising, and Congress made such advertising illegal after 1971.

Some of the most famous PSAs have been Smokey the Bear’s “Only You Can Prevent Forest Fires” campaign; the United Negro College Fund’s “A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Waste” campaign; and the Drug-Free America PSA of a frying egg with the words “This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

I always wear my seatbelt. For those who don’t, perhaps the seatbelt PSA above will be the visual jolt they need.


‘On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.’

February 14, 2010

This Peter Steiner cartoon published in The New Yorker on July 5, 1993, still makes me laugh.

It wittily captures the revolutionary quality of the internet age.  The internet, in less than two decades of public use, has emerged as a central source of information, persuasion, entertainment and anonymity.

Here are seven statistics from Pingdom that reveal how far we have come in so short a time:

* 247 billion — Number of emails sent each day, totaling 90 trillion a year.  81% are spam.

* 1.73 billion — Number of internet users worldwide, representing an 18% increase from the preceding year.

* 350 million — Number of people with Facebook pages. Half of them log in every day. At the current rate, 30 billion photos will be uploaded to Facebook this year.

* 126 million — Number of blogs, as tracked by BlogPulse.  The Dean’s Blog is a modest contributor, averaging about 120 views a day.

* 47 million — Number of new Web sites added in 2009.

* 40 million — Number of YouTube videos that U.S. internet users watch each day.

* 4.25 million — Number of Twitter fans following Ashton Kutcher’s @aplusk, Twitter’s most followed. I’m not one of them.

The Lede

February 12, 2010

The first paragraph of a new story is called the lede (that’s how journalists spell it). It’s also the most important because a reader either is pulled in by wanting to know more or pushed away in disinterest.

In my days as an Associated Press editor, we liked to see ledes of 25 words or less. Having so few words available brings great clarity to the mind. What is the essential point of the story? What lede can make this a compelling story worth reading?

Professor Melvin Mencher of Columbia recently noted how The New York Times lede on J.D. Salinger’s obituary was more than 60 words, reflecting Salinger’s own writing style. Read the comparison yourself.

Salinger’s opening sentence in his best-seller novel The Catcher in the Rye reflects the rhythmic speech pattern given to the central character, teenager Holden Caulfield:  “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”

And now the rhythmic lede to his recent obituary in The New York Times: “J.D. Salinger, who was thought at one time to be the most important American writer to emerge since World War II but who then turned his back on success and adulation, becoming the Garbo of letters, famous for not wanting to be famous, died on Wednesday at his home in Cornish, N.H., where he had lived in seclusion for more than 50 years. He was 91.”

The shorter the better, usually. But Mencher notes that another journalistic axiom is applicable: The lede should fit the nature of the event.