Minnesota Needs Better Public Safety Advertisements

The annual British Arrows Awards were a good reminder that the best thing on TV is sometimes the advertisements, and how good public safety advertisements in other English-speaking countries are. (Unfortunately the showings are sold out until the end of their run on 4 January)

Here, for example, is one of the award winning ads:

It’s funny, it gets your attention, and it imparts a message that that viewer is responsible without blaming them.

Here’s a slightly different example of this style of public safety advertising, from New Zealand:

Some of the key elements of this advertisement are similar, despite the more graphic and depressing tone. You, the viewer, are responsible for avoiding the horrible personal consequences of drinking and driving. The key phrase “if you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot” has been repeated across many different advertisements with the same basic message, and has become a phrase you’ll hear in actual conversation in New Zealand and Australia. Indeed the “If you drink and drive you’re a bloody idiot” campaign began in the 1980s.

Compare with the anti-drink-driving advertisements we have in Minnesota which are infrequent and ineffective.

Can you make me one of those?

Here’s some more of what the Department of Public Safety has on YouTube. If you watch TV at this time of year, and around Labor Day, you’ll see some Department of Public Safety advertisements saying there are extra highway patrols, so if you drink and drive there’s a greater chance of being caught. The implicit messages here are misplaced. There’s the implication that drinking and driving is only a seasonal problem. There’s the implication that the consequences you should think about are not your underlying behavior, but the probability of being caught. And all the messages are implicit. There’s no direct condemnation of drinking and driving, no implication that the viewer should change what they do.

There’s a billboard which I’ve seen lately beside several Minnesota roads, stating that 1 in 7 Minnesota drivers has a DWI and asking if the lights coming towards you are one of them. Again, the messages here are ineffective. Drinking and driving is presented as something that other people do, and that what the reader should do is fear other people’s behavior. Now, there’s a grain of truth in that. A little more fear and caution behind the wheel is probably a good thing. Maybe the idea is that people will be concerned enough about the historical fact that other people have driven drunk that they’ll stop drinking and driving themselves or persuade their friends and relatives to do likewise. That’s a mighty long chain of reasoning between an advertisement and behavioral change. A DWI conviction is a bad thing, but it’s a mere historical legal artifact that doesn’t actually make the roads more risky now or in the future. What makes roads risky is people (possibly you!) drinking and driving now. That’s the behavior that needs to be changed.

Finally, lets consider the recent Metro Transit campaign “Safety is a shared responsibility” about safety around light rail. The message here manages to be both patronizing and not particularly effective in leaving people with a sense of the consequences of their own actions. I think the idea that Metro Transit wants to convey is that the train will kill you, so don’t do stupid things near trains. Why not just say that or show that? Here are a couple of Australian advertisements that makes the same point much more directly but also in a way that’s much more respectful of the viewer.

The graphic and personal road safety advertisements you’ll see frequently in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand have been shown by researchers [links: world bank, vox] to be much more effective in changing people’s behavior than the ones we have in Minnesota that focus on legal consequences. Sustained campaigns to change attitudes about drinking and driving have been important in other developed countries achieving greater reductions in traffic deaths than the United States.

The central psychological problem in getting people to not drink and drive (or not to wander mindlessly across railroad lines) is that most of the time people do those things they live to tell the tale. Even when the chance of bad things happening changes the probabilities are still in the range where people can’t really tell the difference. The change of dying in a road accident are 1/3 now of what they were in 1970 (4.5 in 1970 to 1.5 deaths now per million miles traveled). That’s important change, and we can still do better, but the probabilities are indistinguishable in daily life. What hasn’t changed are the bad consequences of driving drunk (or stepping in front of a train).

Raising people’s awareness of the personal consequences of their actions is central to effective public safety advertising. Thus the key message of these advertisements is that something horrible could happen to you or people you love if you do something (drive drunk, walk in front of a train). Getting arrested is bad, and avoiding arrest motivates some people to change their behavior. But most people are more motivated to change their behavior by the potential irreversible personal consequences of bad behavior. You might be injured, your family member might die, your family might disown you for killing a loved one. Demonstrating these bad things requires graphic advertisements of mangled bodies and sad people. Billboard line-ups of stern cops who might arrest you aren’t that effective.

So we need much better road safety advertising in Minnesota (and the rest of the country). It would be nice to say that we could just use the effective English language advertisements from other countries. But there’s just one problem. Several of those countries drive on the left, and driving on the left really is a very risky behavior in Minnesota. The campaign messages and scripts, however, have been shared across many different countries. Let’s adopt them for America.

Evan Roberts

About Evan Roberts

Evan Roberts is an Assistant Professor of Population Studies and the History of Medicine at the University of Minnesota, where he teaches and researches demography, labor and urban issues. He counts it as a successful week if he has run more miles than he has driven. Connect on twitter @evanrobertsnz or now Mastodon @evanrobertsnz@econtwitter.net

12 thoughts on “Minnesota Needs Better Public Safety Advertisements

  1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

    Minnesota Department of Public Safety has awful radio ads that I’ve heard a few times while driving outstate… Your state government wants to shame you into not drinking and driving by telling you that **riding transit and biking for transportation** would be quite the punishment. I wish I was joking. I’ve tried to twittershame MN DPS, to no avail. I hope they decided to stop such reckless advertising.

    1. Monte Castleman

      Frankly, for a lot of people having to ride a slow, stinky bus or bicycle to work when it’s zero degrees out, or other direct consequences, are bigger deterrent than the possibility of killing someone. The ads are trying to deter drunk driving, not promote non single-car driving, so I don’t necessarily think they’re misguided or ineffective. This board isn’t necessarily representative of the metro area as a whole where the vast majority of people in the metro drive to work.

  2. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This is a great post and important. Minnesota ads focus on how much jail time or money you’ll have to spend, as opposed to the much more personal and effective argument about killing your friends, family, or someone else. The MN ads just wash over you and have little effect. The one you linked to reminds me of ostensibly anti-smoking ads in the past that just encouraged it subliminally… I know the DPS is sincere, but I wonder if they’re hamstrung by cultural or political limitations within the culture of the department?

    1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

      Not just jail time and money lost, but HAVING TO BIKE FOR TRANSPORTATION! Doesn’t that violate the 8th Amendment? (ref: MN DPS radio ads)

  3. Wayne

    Well, judging by the comments on the story about that guy who drove through the crowd of people (and STILL hasn’t had any charges filed against him??), I’d guess that your average Minnesotan driver has little-to-no regard for the life and limb of their fellow human beings and that trying to scare them into compliance is seen as the only option. I’d like to not be so cynical, but after being nearly killed on a daily basis by *sober* drivers who value ten seconds of their time more than my safety and life, I have very little faith left in humanity as soon as they get behind the wheel.

    Honestly, I think the money would be better spent on explaining safer road designs that force people to slow down (after said roads are built and people will want to complain) rather than on trying to shame them into acting like reasonable human beings. I don’t think any amount of shaming is going to work, and I honestly don’t think that trying to treat people like adults will either. It’s obvious these PSAs are something they’re forced to do and their heart isn’t in it. Why would anyone take messages seriously that the people behind clearly don’t even really support?

    Also, you know, if public transit wasn’t awful and it wasn’t a requirement to drive to bars in most places …

  4. Evan RobertsEvan Roberts

    Matt, I agree that’s pretty awful but it could be true that in rural Minnesota having to bike for transportation is an effectively scary vision of the consequences of drink driving. People are that car dependent …

    One of the things the World Health Organisation and OECD research has shown is that a sustained campaign of attitudinal change is needed, where the basic message doesn’t change frequently, but the specific images and consequences do change. Sustained for years and decades. There are institutional factors which make that harder in the U.S. such as top government department jobs changing more frequently. Another thing the WHO highlights is that a good advertising campaign has to be co-ordinated with law enforcement. Here the DPS can co-ordinate easily with the State Patrol, but a lot of drink driving enforcement is done at the fragmented local level. In Australia/New Zealand/Britain there’s only a small number of law enforcement agencies so co-ordinating with the transport safety people is much easier.

    Our TV and electronic media landscape is also much more fragmented. It was easier to start these campaigns in 1980s Australia and New Zealand with only a few free-to-air TV channels. Harder now. Location targeted video advertisements on the web are a potential way forward.

    All that aside, the actual advertisements here are still awful. Even if they were great it’s a harder environment to work in.

  5. Janne

    Another problem with the drinking and driving billboards is that they state “1 in 7 Minnesota drivers has a DWI.” It highlights just how normal it is to drink and drive, as [we all know] hardly anyone actually gets a DWI when drinking and driving. Social psychology research shows that those sorts of messages may well INCREASE the behavior the ad is trying to STOP.

    Let me crib an explanation from my friend Alex Maki’s blog (source with much better explanation and specific examples here http://www.alexmaki.com/blog/do-environmental-actions-speak-louder-than-words):

    The explicit message in the commercial is clear: We need to stop driving drunk! This is what social scientists call an injunctive social norm – what society thinks we should be doing.

    However, a sinister implicit message is lurking beneath the surface: Everybody drives drunk! This is what is called a descriptive social norm – what people are actually doing.

    As Alex puts it, the descriptive norms of society can potentially overwhelm what we should be doing, the injunctive norms. The result? No change in a message recipient’s behavior; in fact, it can even lead to an increase in the negative behavior being rallied against (in this case, people seeing the billboard might be unlikely to change their behavior, or might even be more likely to drive drink).

  6. brad

    Is rail safety really what “Safety is a shared responsibility” is about? It’s always sounded like one of those “report suspicious packages” announcements to me. Either way, they’re got the Orwellian security state tone down pat.

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