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Can Auto Safety Ads Go Too Far?

Can Auto Safety Ads Go Too Far? Julie Roehm
In 2007, there were 10.6 million automobile accidents in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. "Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash" according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC also states that:

Among teen drivers, those at especially high risk for motor vehicle crashes are:

  • Males: In 2006, the motor vehicle death rate for male drivers and passengers ages 15 to 19 was ¬†almost two times that of their female counterparts.

  • Teens driving with teen passengers: The presence of teen passengers increases the crash risk of unsupervised teen drivers. This risk increases with the number of teen passengers.

  • Newly licensed teens: Crash risk is particularly high during the first year that teenagers are eligible to drive.

Frightening statistics whether you have teenagers at home or are a driver of any age. But do these statistics justify graphic, disturbing, and sometimes gory public service announcement (PSA) television ads? You be the judge.

These first three ads are from Volkswagon. This car company has frequently been on the forefront of progressive, clutter-breaking advertising. The Safe Happens campaign ads are no exception. This first ad features two friends simply talking as they drive through the suburban streets.

Safe Happens campaign - Two friends talking


This next one takes the same approach but this time with a group of teens talking about a movie they have just seen. Interesting when you couple this seemingly innocent car ride with the statistics above regarding teens driving with other teen passengers.

Friends Discuss movie - Jetta Safe Happens


This last ad from VW features two women talking about none other than a graphic commercial where a car accident is featured...irony at its best.

2006 VW Passat - Safe Happens..two women talking about a commercial


I recall the first time I saw these ads on television. They certainly got my attention and also got me to think more about safe driving, so it did its job. The fact that it came from VW did not escape me either even though theoretically, companies develop and run PSA's for the pure public service element, not the commercial one. Still, if done well, it has a positive branding effect. I recall the furor over these ads at the time. People were complaining that they were far too graphic and disturbing, others complained that they were fake. Either way, people talked about them and that is more than you can say about most PSA's.

Today, texting ranks as the leading cause of traffic accidents in the US, yes among teens, but adults too. Anyone who drives with regularity has seen someone texting in the next lane or worse, been behind someone that is swerving just slightly, with their head down, punching away a text or a tweet that just can't wait. The most recent example of this has been Dr. Frank Ryan, better known as the plastic surgeon who transformed Heidi Montag into a walking barbie doll. He drove off the side of a cliff in California this summer, reportedly while texting and driving. This conjures up some pretty disturbing mental images to be sure but likely nothing compared to what you will see in this public anti-texting announcement developed in the UK.

Fair warning, this is very graphic.

PSA Texting While Driving Ad - UK - banned in US


This ad has not run in the US, outside of the web that is. And on the web it has received well over a million views. Clearly this ad goes to great lengths to make its point, but if you felt that VW crossed a line, there will be no question as to your thoughts on this one. Still, is this the only way to get our attention in this Attention Deficit Disorder society? Can we only break through the clutter of the distractions in our lives and in our media with graphic messages like these?

The Sussex Safer Roads Partnership felt that getting an auto safety related message to people could be done differently.  Check this one out.

Sussex Driving PSA for seat belts


Here, we get all the emotion and all of the impact that we received from the gorier anti-texting ad before it but without the violence. Also, unlike the other ads, this one left you with a smile instead of a look of shock. And, this ad too has been passed around and viewed well over a million times. So which is the more persuasive, memorable and impactful? Only the viewer can say for sure but I would submit that from time to time, it is important to remind people of the reality of their decisions, even if that means some graphic visuals. Still, the public can only handle so much of that type of message on an ongoing basis. As marketers, we are given more permission to be creative in getting our messages across to the internet audience (the UK ad and Sussex ad were seen only on the web in the US). Using our best talents to do it in the enterprise of creating safety awareness and public good is all of our responsibility if we are only given an opportunity. To that end, the Sussex ad offers a creative and effective alternative. Hopefully, other PSA developers will take note.

Julie Roehm is SVP Marketing, "Chief Storyteller" at SAP. Formerly, as a Marketing Strategy Consultant she served companies in all industries, of all sizes. Her client list includes, Credit Suisse, Time Inc., BIAP, Acxiom, ad agencies, and...

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