What, if anything, can the world of development learn from western advertising? Are there parallels between the two that can be exploited by NGO’s to help create more effective ways of reaching listeners?

Ever since the world’s first radio commercial was broadcast in 1922, broadcasters have searched for innovative techniques to successfully deliver sales messages to carefully defined target audiences. In order to try and define the various strengths and weaknesses of radio advertising – and whether they could be harnessed for development broadcasting – I investigated a cross section of advertising related literature.

At first glance, it may seem contradictory to examine third world educational messages through the lens of western advertising. However, on deeper inspection, the two seem somewhat similar… Both attempt to solve the problem of how to successfully deliver a message from “client” to “listener”. Both aim to persuade the listener to question and ultimately change their existing patterns of behaviour…

As legendary advertising specialist David Ogilvy (1983, p.17 / pictured right) observed, advertising can be defined as meaning “drawing attention to something, or notifying or informing somebody of something”. In this respect, it may be possible to examine educational health messages in the same light. Ogilvy draws parallels with government and charity related advertising which often uses the same persuasive language of commercial advertising.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that public service messages are entirely unbiased. They should be judged with the same skepticism that a member of the public might use to judge a purely commercial message. As Gillian Dyer (1982, p.6) notes; “Advertisements are unreliable as sources of information when one considers that they come from biased or interested quarters, namely the producers of the advertised products. The producers are hardly likely to provide us with neutral information.” Dyer (1982) also contends that it is the advertiser’s task to try to persuade rather than inform.

The advertising media has the unique ability to shape and sometimes change a person’s behaviour, opinions and attitudes. According to Brandston and Stafford (2006, p.296) “advertising is arguably the worlds most powerful and pervasive form of propaganda in the world.” It’s this reputation for effectiveness that’s led leading international NGO’s to harness the power of radio advertising to promote their educational health messages.

Although there may seem to be wide gulf between “first world” advertising and “third world” public service messages, there are of course already many instances of Western Advertising techniques being used in Africa. Walk down the main street in any major city and you’ll see billboards promoting everything from Coke to designer fashions. Print, TV and radio commercials are commonplace and often employ celebrity endorsements. In the past decade the international advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, amongst others, have continued to build a strong presence throughout the African continent.

It’s interesting to note that it’s not just commercial businesses in Africa that are employing the persuasive talent of advertising agencies… A 2007 newspaper article, from the Independent newspaper’s Nairobi correspondent Christopher Thompson, reported that the Kenyan Government had hired the Saatchi and Saatchi to handle a nationwide anti-corruption education campaign.

So what exactly are the fundamental principles of successful radio advertising? What “rules” or underlying truths have been identified and can these observations be equally applied to public service announcements?

Don Draper - (M)Ad Man extraordinaire...

AL Ries and Jack Trout are advertising consultants who shared over 50 years of experience in the advertising industry when they wrote “The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing”. Ries and Trout defended the existence of common advertising “laws” by commenting, “there are laws of nature, so why shouldn’t there be laws of marketing?” (Ries,Trout 1993, p.5). However, Nigel Foster disputes this codification in his wry handbook, “Bluff Your Way In Advertising” (Forster,1988, p.6) where he comments that, “advertising is essentially to do with human behaviour, it can only be an inexact science at best, and usually something of a gamble.”

This uncertainty is reflected in data compiled by The Pretesting Company of Englewood New Jersey, which suggests that only 22 % of all radio commercials successfully managed to communicate their intended message.

Beaman (2006) observed that spots are as simple or as complicated to make as longer form radio productions as they use the same elements of voices, sound and music. Many of the technical production skills and values are also similar.

One of the “Immutable Laws of Marketing” – is the claim that the overall aim of an advertising campaign is to enact behavourial change (Ries,Trout 1993). This aim reflects those of hundreds of international NGO’s, which share the terminology of “behavourial change” as an underlying principle. In the instance of educational health messages, the challenge is to overcome a listener’s pre-conceived prejudices.

Another of Ries and Trout’s principles is that an advertiser’s position should be singular. It should follow one simple message. Beckworth (1997) supports this idea by claiming that if a person hears two messages, most people will only process one.

The crucial two elements to any successful campaign are the simplicity of a message coupled with the precise targeting of the message. This second aspect relies on the selection of an appropriate broadcast station which will reach the target audience, as well as the necessary repetition to ensure the message is heard and absorbed. This use of simplicity and repetition in order to deliver a message is similar to techniques a teacher might employ in an educational classroom environment.

Another common theme running through most advertising literature is the use of story telling as a creative technique to deliver messages. This again is another technique often used by teachers as an aid to learning. According to Beaman (2006) the best adverts employ simple forms of storytelling coupled with imagination in order to remain in the minds of listeners.

Harry Beckworth (1997), a former creative supervisor at a leading U.S. advertising agency, stresses the need to start PSA’s (Public Service Announcements) with a strong introduction. Beckworth points to studies which have shown that people are most likely to remember the first and last items, while they often forget the middle section of any message. He justifies this observation by relating it education, where English teachers often encourage students to put their strongest points at the start and finish of each sentence and paragraph and “filler” in the middle.

According to Beckwith (1997) a basic consideration in the human decision making process is that people don’t necessarily want to make a superior choice; they wish to avoid making a bad choice. This principle can be applied to the field of public service announcements, where a “bad choice” could possibly lead to illness – or even death.

Another similarity between the worlds of advertising and development is the reliance on statistical analysis based on intensive research and surveys. Beckworth provides three straightforward rationales to support the need for rigorous research. These can be summarised as; helping an organisation to learn from its mistakes, helping to draw attention to possible problem areas, and stopping organisations from wondering what they are doing wrong. Again, these work equally well as a justification for advertising research as they do for justifying development research.

I was initially unsure whether radio producers working in development would be wary of employing commercially motivated techniques. Would they see advertising as crass exploitation of the consumer – with no place in the field of development? It was therefore important to try and gather information from BBC World Service Trust staff with an established background in spot production…

BBC WST producer Charles Hamilton kindly sent me some of his thoughts on creating spots for development radio (as described in a previous R4D post which can be found in “The Experts” section of this website). His series of guidelines and criteria revealed numerous similarities with the principles common to commercial production in western radio. Each of the attributes that Hamilton lists as ideal spot content for educational spots could be equally applied to commercial production.

Fundamentally, Hamilton advocates the use of entertainment as the key element in any successful spot campaign. This, he believes, is vital to ensure optimal delivery of a simple message to a large audience. For maximum impact the message must be clearly focused. As Hamilton puts it: “one message and repeated many times”.

This method follows the same principles as the advertising industry’s “U.S.P.” concept, or “Unique Selling Proposition”. The U.S.P. technique deconstructs a sales message down to one simple proposition which differentiates the client from their opposition and is subsequently reinforced by through heavily scheduled advertising campaigns.

Another acronym from the world of western advertising refers to the “A.I.D.A” principle which describes the “path” a listener follows while consuming successful advertising message.


• A – Attention
• I – Interest
• D – Desire
• A – Action

Nigel Forster, “Bluff Your Way In Advertising” 1988

According to this principle, the listener has his/her attention captured by an engaging introduction, then their interest is held in order to create some form of desire to try the product or service on offer, before finally being motivated into action.

This final stage is often known as a;

“Call to action”.

The A.I.D.A. concept reflects the pattern a typical listener in a developing country would follow on hearing a health message via radio.

These similarities would seem to clearly represent a parallel between consumer advertising and educational spot production.

The traditional advertising of products to consumers follows many of the forms that NGO’s employ to reach their targeted listeners. It would seem that the two worlds can offer each other many useful techniques and concepts to help improve their respective abilities to share messages with the public. It’s my hope that advertising and development can work more closely together in an effort to create memorable, effective radio in the future…


Beaman, Jim (2006) Programme Making For Radio
Routledge, New York, USA

Beckwith, Harry (1997) Selling The Invisible,
Warner Books, New York, USA

Brandston, Gill, and Stafford, Roy (2006) The Media Students Handbook
Routledge, London and New York, USA

Dyer, Gillian, (1982) Advertising as communication
Methuen, London UK and New York, USA

Foster, Nigel (1988) Bluff Your Way in Advertising
Ravette Books, Horsham, UK

Ogilvy, David (1983) Ogilvy on Advertising
Pan Books, London, UK

Ries, AL and Trout, Jack (1993) The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing
Harper Collins Business, London, UK

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