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Is Your City’s Public Education Campaign Worth It?

October 27, 2016

All movies tell their stories in three acts. Act one begins with some sort of status quo. Then something comes along that changes that status quo and moves the story into act two. By the time the story gets to act three, the person or people affected by that change in that status quo — the small-town sherriff, the band of rebels, or the private investigator taking on powerful government interests – do something specific to either adapt to or fight that change.

The same holds true in advertising. Ads are stories with a purpose: to get people to buy a product or service. I’m vastly oversimplifying it, but for an ad to get people to motivate people to spend their money, it also has to have three acts, or parts:

  1. Define the status quo.
  2. Introduce something new that disrupts that status quo.
  3. Motivate a specific behavior or action.

Using the above framework, think of an ad for a new soft drink:

  1. You’re thirsty, right? (Status quo.)
  2. Awesome Water is here to quench your thirst! (Something new.)
  3. So if you’re thirsty, drink Awesome Water! (Specific action.)

Now, this isn’t the only way ads can motivate people to part with their hard-earned cash. They can tug at people’s heartstrings. (“When you care enough to send the very best.”) They can prey on insecurities or fears. (“You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”) Or they can include a catchphrase or slogan that’s so memorable that there’s no way to not think of the brand or product when one hears it. (“Just do it.” “Think Different.”) Regardless of the tactic, the purpose is the same: get people to buy stuff.

Public awareness campaigns don’t always have the same goals as consumer products. For starters, they’re not usually trying to get people to buy something. But for them to be effective, the tactics should more or less be the same.

One of NYC DOT’s most effective public awareness campaigns had to do with the 2014 reduction of the citywide speed limit from 30 mph to 25 mph. The messaging followed the same steps outlined above:

  1. The New York City speed limit used to be 30 mph. (Status quo.)
  2. It’s been lowered to 25 mph. (Something new.)
  3. So drive 25 mph. (Specific action.)

That’s a simple takeaway: drive five miles per hour slower than before. The concept is easy to explain in a thirty-second radio ad, Facebook post, or during a quick interaction between a Vision Zero Street Team member and a motorist. It can be understood in the amount of time it takes to drive by a billboard or walk by a bus shelter. (It’s hard to measure the exact effectiveness of DOT’s  “Your Choices” campaign, but at least it was easy to understand. Drivers – not kids on bikes or people crossing with the light in a crosswalk – have the biggest responsibility to move through the city safely.)

But what to make of the city’s current campaign to remind people to be careful as the clocks change and it gets darker earlier? What should any individual person do about that? Following the basic framework at the beginning of this post, you can see how this breaks down by step three:

  1. It’s been light out during the evening commute for a while. (Status quo.)
  2. When the clocks change, it will be dark. (Something new.)
  3. ???

So what’s the third step? What’s the specific action to follow once someone has the not exactly surprising information that it gets dark early when daylight saving time ends? Be careful? Most drivers think they are. (Like the children of Lake Wobegon, all drivers are above average.) Is the takeaway that drivers should take turns slowly? Define slow. Should they look out for pedestrians? That doesn’t necessarily jibe with the excuse a lot of drivers give when they hit someone: “He came out of nowhere!”

I’m not even sure such a campaign could contain all the information needed to change driver’s behavior in just three steps. “What does darkness have to do with driving? My car has lights! It’s those pedestrians buried in their phones who need to be careful!” Even if one can defend this campaign by saying that it’s mostly about raising awareness about a serious public health problem – Did you know that the earlier sunset and darkness are linked to an increase in the number of pedestrians killed or seriously injured by drivers? – what is anyone supposed to do with that awareness? It’s an open-ended question that can lead to all kinds of misguided initiatives, from NYPD crackdowns on cyclists to taping reflective tape on seniors’ canes.

$1.5 million is less than a rounding error in the city’s budget. This campaign will come and go. Maybe more people will choose to drive safely. Maybe they won’t. But the next time the city thinks about sending its a public service campaign, I hope it asks a simple question: What specific behavior do we want people to change? If there isn’t a simple answer, then go back to the drawing board.

 

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