Multimodal Mondays: Using PSAs to Teach Visual Rhetoric and Audience

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Jennifer Hewerdine teaches composition at Arizona Western College and is a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale.  Her scholarly interests include digital literacies, writing center practice, collaboration, and low-stakes writing.  You can reach Jennifer at



When I hear of composition instructors assigning public service announcements PSAs, it is often in the form of radio or video PSAs. However, when teaching students multimodal writing, it can help the composing process to begin with the visual mode before revising the PSA for an audio or audiovisual mode. Visual and audiovisual PSAs also require students to consider design and the ways in which visual elements communicate messages. Therefore, before students compose a video or audio PSA, I assign a poster PSA to help them conceptualize how image and limited wording communicates a message to the audience.


Students see PSAs often: on billboards, television, fliers posted around campus, and in radio advertisements. They may not, however, consider the means by which PSAs attract and speak to an audience. Prior to beginning their PSA, I ask students to locate and analyze other PSAs for audience, location, and rhetorical effectiveness. Students are also taught about establishing an authorial ethos through the ethics of fair use, copyright, permissions, and Creative Commons.



  • Develop an awareness of audience, purpose, and visual modes of rhetoric
  • Understand the ethics and implications of fair use
  • Locate, edit, and use images for a rhetorical purpose
  • Enhance understanding of rhetorical appeals


Background Reading

These texts from Andrea’s handbooks are useful introductions to multimodal writing and rhetorical choices:



  1. In preparation for the PSA, students should locate PSAs about a variety of topics and then choose one or two to rhetorically analyze, preferably one that is a static image and another that is audio or audiovisual. I find that students are more successful when they first analyze in a small group and present their analysis to the class. Questions students may address include:
  • What is the purpose of the PSA? What is the designer arguing for?
  • Where is the location where the PSA would be seen or heard? What considerations does the designer need to make based on location?
  • For visual PSAs: Describe the use of images. What appeals are the images meant to invoke? What does this communicate to you as a reader?
  • What is the balance of white space, image, and text?
  • How do readers navigate the PSA?

  1. Once students have analyzed PSAs, each student should consider the purpose of the PSA they will create and the audience they are targeting for their PSA. Students can brainstorm or compose a freewrite or mockup of their PSA with multiple versions of wording and/or ideas for images that will appeal to their intended audience.


  1. Following their analysis, the students are asked to discuss citation, creative works, fair use, and copyright in regard to images. The class also has a discussion of the four licensing types offered by Creative Commons. For their PSA, students can either use images they may have created and/or locate images in the Creative Commons database. As a class, we discuss the conventions seen in PSAs such as the limited use of text and text dedicated to providing a location to learn more about the topic.


  1. Once students have completed a draft of their PSA, the class can then rhetorically analyze peers’ PSAs and/or submit a rhetorical analysis of their own PSA as a means of reflecting on the rhetorical choices they made while creating the poster.


  1. After creating a visual PSA, students can revise their PSA to turn it into a radio announcement and/or a video announcement, thereby asking them to reconsider the audience, design, rhetorical appeals, and location. Before doing this, students can use their poster PSA to present a brief PSA before the class. Students may also want to consider publishing their PSA.


Sergio Garcia, the designer of the PSA below, chose to discuss air pollution in Mexicali, Mexico, and the effects it has on residents. As a resident of Imperial Valley, California, just north of Mexicali, Sergio has experienced the effects of air pollution. When making his PSA, he was faced with a unique rhetorical choice. Because he was targeting an audience with both Spanish and English language users, he had to decide the language to use in his PSA.    


The first draft of a PSA by Sergio Garcia about the effects of air pollution



When students submit their PSA, I ask that they write a short essay about their design and audience choices as well as other rhetorical choices they made as they created the PSA. I then ask them to reflect upon how those choices change when they consider a new audience or a new location. If students revise to create an audio or audiovisual PSA, the reflection can include the differences in rhetorical choices from one mode of communication to the other.


Want to collaborate with Andrea on a Multimodal Monday assignment or be a guest blogger? Send ideas to Leah Rang for possible inclusion in a future post.

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.