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Fourth of July Barbecues and the Impact of Food Safety PSAs

The upcoming Fourth of July weekend is prime barbecue time for just about everybody, but a new public service announcement (PSA) campaign from the Department of Agriculture (USDA) hopes to remind would-be grillmasters that food safety is paramount, even when you’re trying to simultaneously kick back a beer and show off the fireworks you bought across the state line. The PSAs advise Americans to Clean, Separate, Cook, and Chill. Why prioritize this message? Because, the USDA says, there are about 76 million cases of foodborne illness in the U.S. every year, resulting in over 300,000 hospitalizations and 5,000 deaths. But will the new ad campaign have any impact on these numbers?

If the campaign is smartly designed, there’s reason to believe it could. That’s because not all PSAs are created equal—a 2009 study, for example, observed that many PSAs “lack a theory (or data) for why the desired behavior is or is not occurring” and “instead rely on intuitive theories of human behavior, rather than established social psychological principles of influence.” As a result, many PSAs are useless or worse: One study referenced in the 2009 paper evaluated 30 anti-drug PSAs and found that six actually increased the subjects’ intention to use drugs. But a 2004 review of anti-drunk driving campaigns found that the best campaigns—those that were pre-tested to maximize effectiveness, publicized widely, and matched by strong enforcement measures—had measurable impacts and were worth the costs. The USDA, for its part, has released a considerable body of research on the “Clean, Separate, Cook, Chill” message, emphasizing its thoroughness in testing concepts, surveying focus groups, utilizing communication and behavior change theories, and researching the media landscape for maximal exposure. The coming weekend should offer some insight into how well their strategy is working.