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Learn how to use paid advertising to increase the number of people reached and to have a higher level of control over your message.


  • What is advertising?

  • Why would you pay to advertise?

  • When should you advertise?

  • How do you advertise?

Let's say that you're getting the word out about your initiative and its activities, but the word isn't getting out quickly enough. You've already used public service announcements and whatever other free or cheap methods of publicizing your methods you could think of. Perhaps now it's time to think about using paid advertising.

Can advertising work for you? If done with care and planning, it certainly can. Let's look at how advertising worked in one public health campaign:

In 1989 and 1990, the Advertising Research Foundation conducted a study of the effectiveness of a four-city colon cancer awareness ad campaign. They found that, among men who saw the ads, only 6% had spoken to their doctors about the risk of colon cancer before the ads ran; after seeing the ads, 35% of the men spoke to their doctors. The researchers concluded that if television ads on the subject had been shown across the United States, over 2.7 million men would have taken the important step of talking to their doctors about their risk for colon cancer. Clearly, advertising can be a very effective health promotion tool!

What is advertising?

Paid advertising represents the purchase of "air time" on a radio or television channel, or page space in a newspaper or magazine. Printed media and broadcast media help pay for the costs of running their businesses by charging other businesses to advertise during their television or radio programs or in their newspapers. While advertising can include any sort of public promotion done by your group that must be paid for, we'll mainly focus on broadcast (radio and television) and print advertising (newspaper, magazines) in this section.

Broadcast advertising

Advertising time is offered in standard blocks on all commercial television and radio stations. Generally, 10-, 20-, 30-, and 60-second spots. Rates are somewhat negotiable-- you might be able to talk the station down a bit on the price --and vary widely depending on when your ad is run. Most radio and television stations offer production services, so they can also produce your ad --which means doing everything needed, such as writing, finding actors or announcers, filming or recording, and editing --for an additional fee.

Print advertising

Most newspapers and magazines measure ads in inches. Rates vary according to the publication's size; many papers give discounts to nonprofit organizations. Ad sizes are referred to in terms of the page layout --¼ page, ½ page, full page, and so on.

Newspaper advertising used to be much more difficult for advertisers wishing to run ads in more than one publication before 1984, when newspapers across the U.S. adopted the Standard Advertising Unit. Before this, the shapes and sizes of newspaper ads varied widely from one paper to another, making a confusing time for all advertisers. The change reduced production costs for display ads by making it easier for advertisers to come up with designs that could be used in more than one newspaper without being altered.

Other media

There are many less traditional media used for advertising. While we will focus on broadcast and print media in this section, here are a few other possibilities you might want to look into:

  • Web advertising: There are a number of different types of web advertising (banner ads, sidebar ads, animation, videos, floaters, pop-up windows, etc.) and a number of ways to use and pay for them.  Some are surprisingly affordable.  Although they're generally not as effective as print and broadcast ads, in some circumstances and with some audiences, they may be just what you need.
  • Outdoor advertising: billboards, ads on public transportation (such as buses and bus benches), rooftop balloons, etc. Check with local transportation agencies for the name of agency that handles the negotiations for public transit ads --these are often handled by an outside contractor.
  • Bumper stickers: These are great for promotions anywhere that there are a lot of drivers --but, of course, aren't so productive in rural areas or in cities so large that many people rely on mass transit to get around.
  • Phone card advertising is a relatively new type of specialty advertising; it's generally best only for large campaigns.
  • Ads in elevators, public restrooms, automated teller machines, etc. are becoming common. These can reach surprisingly large numbers of people; check with specialty advertising agencies in your area for more information.
  • Direct mail advertising is often used in local campaigns.

What About Freebies?

Before we delve too deeply into the subject of paid advertising, it is important to remember that you can often get the same or similar effects from free or cheap sources.

Most radio and television stations, as a condition of their licenses, are required to broadcast a certain number of public service announcements per week. With PSA's, you have less (or no) control over when your message airs, but there is no charge for airing it, and the station may be willing to help you out with production as well.

If you're hoping to do print advertising, you may be able to find an advertising agency or graphic design firm that is willing to do pro bono (free of charge) work for you. Another possibility is to get a local corporation or business to pay for your advertising.

Why would you pay to advertise?

Many of the reasons for using paid advertising are the same as reasons you might have for seeking other types of publicity: to increase awareness about your organization or initiative, or to broaden the number of people your message reaches, for example.

However, since advertising can be more expensive than other types of promotion, there are some other reasons you may want to explore paid advertising:

  • To further increase your organization's name recognition by letting people see and hear your name on TV, in the newspaper, or on the radio.
  • To adequately reach the audience you want when you can't do so through more inexpensive means. If your message just can't reach enough people through less costly methods, it may be time to think about sinking some money into paid advertising.
  • To have a higher level of control over what sort of message is being conveyed by or about your organization or initiative or its programs. With PSA's and other types of pro bono promotional work, you have less decision making power over how your message is being presented. Paid advertising can help you tell your stories your way. You can create an ad that looks at the issues the way you want.
  • To have control over when and how often your message is broadcast or printed. If your message is being run for free, you have little or no say as to what hour it is played (for broadcast) or what section of the publication it appears in (for print). When you pay, you can have your ad run when and how you want it to. For example, you could have your television ad be played the day before the legislature debates important policies that will affect your initiative. Or you could run an ad for your nutrition awareness campaign in the Health and Living section of the newspaper.
  • To turn back the claims or criticism of your opponents and businesses that affect public health, such as the alcohol and tobacco industries, or industries that ignore the health and safety of the people who buy their products. Advertisements can reframe your issues and help you expose industry "white lies," "half-truths," or hypocrisies.

What are some of the benefits of using paid advertising?

  • Enormous control over your media message, because you've paid for your ad. You can make your ad effective and creative.
  • The right to decide on what days the advertisement will show and how often.
  • The ability to target an ad's content to a certain audience, using a specific message. A paid advertisement can tell a story or present a "What if?" situation that aims to change the public's understanding of a problem.
  • Unexpected publicity from sources who either picked up or reported on your effective ad because it's worthy of news coverage in and of itself.
  • The chance at long-term name recognition.

When should you advertise?

There are some steps you can take to decide whether this is a good time for you to advertise.

First, consider what you want to accomplish with your ad. Depending on your purpose, you might decide that this is a better time to try to go with freebies. For example, ads asking for donations often don't raise enough to pay for the cost of advertising. Instead of relying solely on ads to raise money, it's better to use advertising to bolster a direct mail or telephone campaign, attract attendance for a fundraising event, or reinforce a PR campaign.

Next, consider whether you can afford to do enough advertising to accomplish what you want. For example, if you only have enough in your budget for a single television spot, that's not going to reach a lot of people. Perhaps a series of less expensive newspaper display ads would be more in order. Advertising can be expensive (due to fierce competition for space and the high cost of producing an ad), but ads in some media outlets can be affordable, and if your ad is eye-catching and well-written it can often pay for itself in the end by generating additional publicity and action on behalf of your cause.

Consider whether you can use your advertising to react and respond to attacks --to show commitment to your issues, turn away your opponents' criticism, or correct misconceptions about your organization's mission. If you're working on a particularly "hot" issue that's causing a lot of controversy in your community, you might try advertising to respond to your opponents. However, you may well be able to find cheaper or free ways of doing this.

Consider whether you can use your ad to respond to current events by relating your issues to late-breaking issues, as in the following example.

Timing an ad to tie in to a current event.

The federal government once halted imports of fruit from Chile because traces of cyanide were found on two grapes. Anti-tobacco activists in several communities seized on this announcement to inform the public that the amount of cyanide found in one cigarette is more than that found on a bushel of grapes.

Advertising can also be used to act quickly when an opportunity arises.

Using advertising to jump on an opportunity.

Anytown Citizens Against Alcohol is a community group that has been fighting for alcohol legislation that is being voted on tomorrow. ACAA's Director, Dante Shakira, takes out an ad reminding the community of the high percentage of teenagers who report drinking. Then Dante tips off a local journalist to a state legislator's acceptance of large campaign contributions from the local alcohol industry. Publicity like this can influence policymakers to reconsider their votes.

Extra, unexpected publicity that you get from a paid ad or a specific story you lined up is called earned publicity. For example, the controversy created by a condom ad you bought might earn you a story in tomorrow's newspaper. And that publicity is free! In light of the high cost of advertisement and the speed with which news changes these days, earned publicity becomes extremely valuable. If you have a chance to create some, do it!

Consider whether you can use advertising to present dull, boring facts in a more interesting way. Compare, contrast, and put into context -- rewrite dry, incomprehensible statistics that don't impress people anymore into eye-catching messages that make a consumer sit up and think.

Making statistics interesting with advertising

Rocio Mundoz has been put in charge of writing a print ad that highlights the number of deaths per year related to smoking. She came up with the following intro line to her ad:

"Each year tobacco kills more people than AIDS, cocaine, heroin, alcohol, fires, car crashes, homicide and suicide combined."

Talk about effective numbers!

Consider whether you can use your advertising to publicly thank your supporters, which lends your organization credibility and brings prestige to those who help you. This can make helping your organization look much more attractive to those who might support you in the future.

As you can see, the potential uses for paid advertising are many and varied. Despite the money you may spend, advertising often creates endless opportunities for good publicity and the creation of positive media relations.

How do you advertise?

Decide whether to work with an agency.

First, give some thought to whether you want to work with an advertising agency or public relations company on your ad campaign. Whether or not you choose to work with an agency will depend on your budget and how involved you want to be with the fine points of the campaign. If you decide to use an ad agency or public relations firm, you will have fewer details to worry about, but you will have to pay the agency for its work -- and they can get expensive. However, you may be able to find an agency that will work for free or at a reduced rate (see the box on "What about freebies?" earlier in this section). Depending on your staff, volunteers, and other non-financial resources, working with an agency may turn out to be less of a drain on your resources in the long run than doing it yourself -- weigh your options!

Decide on your target audience.

Think about who you want to hear or see your message, and how best to approach that audience. This is one area that advertising agencies and public relations firms definitely have a lot of expertise with, and you can also get lots of demographic information from the media outlets you approach about who watches their television station or who reads their newspaper.

Here are a few things to take into consideration:

  • Gender
  • Average age
  • Place of residence
  • Income level
  • Education level
  • Ethnic/racial background
  • Attitude/community values
  • How do they spend their time?

Decide what medium you should use.

You may also decide to use some combination of two or more media.


  • Radio tends to be most effective at encouraging the audience to do something -- for example, calling a phone number for more information or attending a rally for human rights.
  • As we mentioned earlier, almost all radio stations will produce your commercials for you, although pre-produced ads from an advertising agency are accepted.
  • Check with the station's advertising department for details on their services and requirements.


  • According to a 1995 survey comparing the use of various types of media, American adults spend more time watching TV than following all other major media combined. This means that with television ads you will have more captive attention, but television is more expensive and producing television commercials costs more.
  • Most local television stations can produce your commercials for you, but bringing in pre-produced commercials from an advertising agency is perfectly acceptable as well.
  • Check with the station's advertising department for details on their services and requirements.


  • When it comes to print advertising -- newspapers and magazines -- you have two choices: display ads or classified ads. Larger newspapers usually have separate staffs for the two types of advertising.
  • Display ads are the regular ads found throughout the paper.
  • Classifieds are the text-only "want ads" found only in their own section towards the back of the paper; they are sorted by type and are sometimes free. Classified ads are commonly used to advertise job openings and announce meetings.
  • You may wish to choose specialty publications (church publications, newsletters for community organizations, etc.) to reach specifically targeted groups.
  • Check with the paper or magazine's advertising department for details on their services and requirements.

For print ads (or any ads, for that matter), you'll also need to decide how often and when the ad should run.

For events:

  • In a weekly paper: try three weeks prior to the event and again during the week of an event
  • In a daily paper: try twice a week for two weeks prior to the event, and again the day of the event.

For recruitment:

  • A "blitz" may work best; try three times a week for two weeks in print. If you're using radio or television ads for recruitment, try several 30- or 60-second spots per day for a week in radio or television.

Whatever media you decide on, find out the submission requirements for their ads ahead of time -- deadlines, in what form they want to receive your materials, and so on.

Come up with a budget.

This is a crucial step. You need to plan out how much your advertisement -- whether it's a single ad or an entire campaign -- will cost. Things to include in your budget:

  • The expense of any sort of market research or testing you might do to figure out how to proceed.
  • The expense of creating the ad.
  • The expense of running the advertisement. Some media outlets have a special discount rate for public service or non-profit ads first. Try to get it for free first! If you're using an ad agency, you might get a break on fees. Ad agencies get a 15% agency discount or commission, from the TV stations where they place your advertising.
  • Any donations toward the cost of your advertising. The media might be willing to donate time, or at least give you a break on the cost. Again, see the "What About Freebies?" box earlier in this section.

Produce your ad.

Now you're ready to make your actual advertisement--or have your advertising agency do it. Producing your ad will work similarly to producing a public service announcement or poster.

Give careful consideration to how you want to present yourself in your advertising. For example, if you work with an adult literacy group, you will need to make sure the grammar and spelling are absolutely correct and that everything is coherent and clear in all your advertising. Or, for another example, if you work with an environmental organization, you may want to be sure that you only advertise in publications that use recycled paper and environmentally responsible inks and dyes.

Know -- and meet -- the deadlines to get your ad placed when you want it to.

Now it's time to submit your ad to whatever media outlets you want it to be placed in. At this point in the process, it's absolutely essential that you meet whatever deadlines there are for those outlets. In advertising, deadlines are rarely flexible. If you miss the deadline, you miss getting your ad to appear when you want it to. It's important to find out ahead of time when the deadlines are and then to meet them.

With radio and television, deadlines depend on whether your ads are pre-produced (i.e., ready to go on the air) or need to be worked on by the station. Deadlines vary widely, so check with each station you're interested in using. With newspapers, the deadline is usually two or three days before the ad is run. Lead time (the amount of time between when an ad is submitted and when it appears) is often much longer for magazines -- up to 3 months or even more in advance of the publication date.

Follow up!

Once your ad starts appearing, track its appearance and try to gauge how effective it's been. This will tell you how efficiently your money has been spent and give you ideas on how to improve your advertising strategies in the future.

In Summary

Publicizing your initiative or program is an important step in making sure that your services or message reach the widest number of people whom you can help, or who can help you. Many free or less expensive methods of doing this exist, but sometimes you may find you simply have to resort to using paid advertising in order to get the word out. With proper planning and timing, paid advertising can be a vital method of promoting what you stand for.

Chris Hampton

Online Resources

NGO Media Outreach: Using the Media as an Advocacy Tool is a very good resource produced by the Coalition for the International Criminal Court, September 2003.

Six Things Nonprofits Should Know About Facebook Ads, by Taryn Degnan, is an interesting and useful article that gives insights about nonprofits and Facebook advertising.

Wheeling Walks: A Community Campaign Using Paid Media to Encourage Walking Among Sedentary Older Adults. Preventative Medicine 35, 285-292. Reger B., Cooper, L., Booth-Butterfield, S., Smith, H., Bauman, A., Wootan, M., Middlestadt, S., Marcus, B. and Greer, F. (2002). This is a research study designed to investigate the role of paid media.

Print Resources

Ad Council (1998). Impact of public service advertising campaigns.

Adler, E. A. (1988). Placing newspaper ads. Palo Alto, CA: Health Promotion Resource Center.

Booth, M. & Associates. (1995). Promoting issues & ideas: A guide to public relations for nonprofit organizations. New York,NY: The Foundation Center.

Daniel, L. (1989) Print production: Dealing with vendors. Palo Alto, CA: Health Promotion Resource Center.

Floyd, E. and Wilson, L. (1994). Advertising from the desktop. Scottsdale, AZ: Ventana Press.

Television Bureau of Advertising & Bruskin/Goldring Research, Inc. (1995). 1995 media comparisons survey. Edison, NJ: Bruskin/Goldring Research, Inc.