“There needs to be a better marketing plan (for science).” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

Though he openly states that he wishes it weren’t the case, famed astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, is known to say that, if every science research program came with a fraction of its budget for advertising to promote what science has done for everyday Americans, maybe that would win more support for the space program. As someone who has worked in the profession for several decades, I know that he is correct. However, I suspect that what Dr. deGrasse Tyson has in mind are public service announcements (PSAs) rather than advertising. It is not uncommon for people to confuse marketing terms. This made me think; maybe it’d be worthwhile to post about the differences among advertising, public service announcements, and public relations.


This article by Learning Hub defines advertising as “the process of targeting and persuading an audience to take a specific action, and this can be in the form of consuming a product or bringing awareness to an issue.” While persuading or influencing an audience to purchase a product may seems like an obvious objective for advertising, a lesser-known one is to bring attention to issues. For instance, that same article mentions anti-smoking PSAs as an example of bringing further awareness to a public issue. While this process may seem simplistic due to an inundation of ads on various websites and social media platforms, the article goes on to explain that advertisers actually take the time to gain an understanding of their target audience’s behaviors and interests before posting. For a more in-depth explanation on what advertising is and how it differs from marketing, the article can be found here.

Public Service Announcements

With a better understanding of what advertising encompasses, we can move on to talk about the more salient point of this article, what Dr. deGrasse Tyson likely meant when he mentioned the possible benefits of science research programs allocating more resources to promote what science has done for everyday Americans. While the description of an advertisement might seem to fit the bill here, a PSA is more fitting in this context. The reason or this is that PSAs serve as a short message, either in the form of ready-to-air audio or video files as explained in this article by Community Tool Box, with the intent to bring awareness to a particular group or organization. The article brings up great examples of PSAs when they mention slogans such as, “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?,” or “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” PSAs generally rely on donated airtime from stations for non-commercial causes, and this is the key difference between them and advertisements. Further, seeing as most research programs have finite resources, going the route of a PSA might be a more enticing option with production being the sole cost. Moreover, if the objective is to simply bring awareness to what science has done for the everyday American rather than to sell a product, then an advertisement would likely be an overly costly endeavor. A rather significant caveat to PSAs is that, because the airtime is donated, the time for their airing is often not during peak hours and, they may not be able to go on all of the desired media outlets. For more information on PSAs, their uses and limitations, as well as how to prepare one, click here.

Public Relations

Although this is not relevant to what Dr. deGrasse Tyson was talking about, another common marketing term that is confused with those mentioned is that of public relations. This article from PRSA eloquently explains what PR is at its core when it states, “Public relations is a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” The article further explains this building of relationships when it mentions that it “requires engaging with key stakeholders across numerous platforms in order to shape and frame the public perception of an organization.” This might seem eerily similar to advertising as the purpose of PR is to bring further awareness to an organization by building this relationship. However, how the messaging gets published is quite different. I often say that advertising and PR are two sides of the same coin as advertising involves a paid placement or sponsorship while PR achieves its results via no-cost placements by persuading gatekeepers that the news and information being imparted would be beneficial to the audience.

More significantly marketing professionals are often in charge of setting objectives for marketing campaigns that include advertising, PR and PSAs, as well as other communications tools, then managing the resources allocated to them accordingly. If you wish to read further on what exactly PR professionals do, the link to the PRSA article can be found here.

Raising Awareness for Science

As a field that has been taken for granted in recent times, science remains essential to the progress of society. I completely agree with Dr. deGrasse Tyson when he says that Americans should know what science has done for them in the hope of gaining further support for the space program. However, an advertisement campaign may prove to be too costly for research programs with finite resources. While it is true that a PSA might not reach all of the intended media outlets or air during peak hours, starting with a message that only comes with the cost of production could be beneficial for gaining much-needed support for our space program.

This article first published on the St. Conti Communications blog