Passive vs. Active TV PSA Evaluation: More Sophisticated
Tracking Can Double Reported Value
by Bill Goodwill
Until recently, the only fairly reliable method of evaluating
the usage of public service advertising was to place a business reply card
(BRC) in the PSA package distributed to broadcast outlets.
Although everyone who used this evaluation technique knew that it
was not entirely accurate, BRCs were the only method available to track
usage, and the assumption was that it is better to have some data than
none at all. Further, BRCs also allow feedback not available by any other
means, such as the dub format preference for TV stations, the name of the
public service director, and address.
However, any time there is human involvement in a process, particularly
when that process gains no revenue to the organization providing the
service, there is bound to be resistance and room for error. Such
is the case with evaluating BRCs that public service directors must "actively"
complete and return to the evaluator. Also, many television station public service directors
are not sure of the airplay schedule for any given PSA.
Most TV PSAs are placed in automated "rotation," and the public
service director normally does not get affidavits to show usage. Although
stations are required to maintain broadcast logs, many of them are not
computerized. And due to the tremendous number of PSAs in a station's inventory
at any given time, it is not feasible to report PSAs aired for every PSA
campaign used by a station. Accordingly, much of BRC reporting involves
"guesstimates" based on likely or projected usage.
Adding to the problem, PSAs can get pre-empted by a paid commercial
at the last moment, perhaps even after the public service director has
returned the evaluation bounce-back card. Finally, our campaign experience
shows that typically 80 percent of BRCs are not returned by stations unless
the evaluator uses more aggressive follow-up techniques such as phone surveys
To provide clients with a more accurate method of evaluation, Goodwill
Communications has been testing the A.C. Nielsen "SIGMA" passive
monitoring service since January, 1995. To track usage via this system,
TV PSAs are encoded electronically prior to duplication. This invisible
code is placed on the master tape at a location that is not used by the
recipient station. Nielsen monitoring equipment tracks PSAs using this
code in all 213 ADI markets and issues weekly raw data reports to Goodwill
Communications. We then prepare cumulative PSA usage reports depicting
airplay from both actual (SIGMA) and projected (BRC) sources.
In using SIGMA data for several different clients, it is clear that
many stations that previously did not respond via bounce back cards do
in fact use PSAs. More importantly, as the chart above shows, the total
value from SIGMA evaluation can far surpass projected usage from BRCs.
Passive v. Active Monitoring
Another distinct advantage of passive monitoring techniques is
that we can show clients the specific time when their PSAs aired. By analyzing
the daypart for PSA usage, we have a much better idea of the types of audiences
we are reaching with our PSAs than was ever possible using the BRC evaluation
The chart below depicts SIGMA daypart data for one of a series of PSA
campaigns we evaluated for the Peace Corps. About 55 percent of TV PSAs
ran during the most desirable dayparts from 9 a.m.-1O p.m. This data contradicts
the view that PSAs run only during "junk" time.
Until recently - even with the SIGMA system - there was no reliable
and fairly affordable monitoring source for commercial and major
cable network PSA usage. Although the four leading commercial networks
inform distributors when a PSA accepted and fed to their affiliates,
they do not provide actual usage data or dollar figures of air time
Through our work with four different military services, we have
used Broadcast Data Services for many years to track commercial and cable
network usage. Using an exclusive process that assigns an electronic "fingerprint"
to each USA being monitored, BDS tracks exact usage for all network exposure,
including daypart and the programs in which PSAs aired. Similar to SIGMA,
it provides us with raw data on usage for a particular time period, and
we cumulate and integrate this data with other tracking data in our
Our BDS evaluation studies indicate that network exposure can account
for as much as two-thirds of the overall total for a PSA campaign. As shown
in the chart below depicting BDS data for the U.S. Navy, dollar values
reported for the three major commercial networks and major cable networks
amounted to $5.2 million in network exposure, or 68 percent of their total
PSA attainment in FY '95.
In spite of the advantages of passive monitoring, very legitimate reasons
exist for continuing to use BRCs to evaluate usage, even beyond confirmation
of station information. No system does a very good job of tracking local
cable television PSA usage, and cable is becoming increasingly important
in the media mix. Other than for the very largest systems, BRCs are still
the best method to obtain feedback from local cable, and our analysis shows
consistency between SIGMA and BRC usage patterns.
Clearly the die has been cast, however, in favor of more sophisticated
evaluation methods for TV - a trend that will continue as electronic
tracking procedures proliferate among cable TV, and even for radio and
Television Business Reply Cards are a valuable tool for keeping media lists
updated. As an evaluation tool, they will become less important as more
sophisticated tracking systems are developed.