A road safety PSA that avoids the gruesome shock and awe

—New Zealand pioneered a certain type of accident prevention advertising, says Craig Redmond. But it has changed course with a powerful new spot that goes for an intellectual rather than visceral reaction—

It is probably the longest, most difficult, and exhaustively traveled road that most of us have journeyed at least a few times: A brief for a PSA asking to actually affect change.

Awareness is the easy part. Everyone is aware that cigarettes cause cancer; that domestic violence is rampant; that smoke detectors save lives; that racial discrimination is abhorrent; that climate change is real; that addiction destroys families; that condoms prevent STD’s; that gun control is right; that food banks need your help; that cyber bullying kills…

Everyone is aware. But still, so many don’t comply and adapt accordingly.

It’s a mind gnarling conundrum that has confounded the client custodians, and their agencies, of every important cause since the dawn of public service advertising.

People know better. Yet they still suck on their cancer sticks; sell their filthy coal; promise to cling to their guns “with their cold dead hands” and continue to get “the clap” by the millions.

This absurdity was brilliantly illustrated for me early in my career, when an English colleague of mine produced a newspaper ad warning against the dangers of leaded gasoline, which was still a thing in Asia at the time. It was a menacingly black, full-page, full bleed ad with white reverse, bold type that read: “Leaded petrol causes brain damage. Which might explain why so many people are still using it.”

Around the same time, I first saw an equally forthright road safety commercial produced for New Zealand’s Transportation Accident Commission. Our creative teams were watching a reel of award-winning ads when the “10 km/h Slower” spot smashed into our psyches.

I distinctly remember how all of us recoiled in perfect unison, mirroring almost exactly the jolt with which the actor/dummy is struck by a car travelling at 70 km/h. And then how we all had to collect ourselves emotionally afterward, because we had never seen anything that graphic in its portrayal or candid in its description of what an accident caused by speed can do to the human body.

Years later, we would get to “Meet Graham” which took an opposite look at the problem by creating the Frankenstein of a human form needed to absorb the impact of such a speeding vehicle.

In the decade between, however, New Zealand’s government kept producing ads that upped the ante in shock and gruesome awe with each successive effort. Other jurisdictions around the world followed suit, with Ireland’s Road Safety Authority taking its campaigns to a whole other level of blunt instrument awareness advertising.

But while all of that advertising triage undoubtedly got everyone’s attention, a disregard for basic road safety continues to exact a terrible toll (see here, here and here).

Which is why I found this latest effort from New Zealand so persuasive. They’ve changed the conversation from visceral to intellectual. They aren’t showing the physical carnage, they’re foretelling the psychological impact. And they’re doing it all with a Toll Booth lady as River Styx-creepy as it gets. Genius casting and a brilliant performance.

Even more important, however, is the fact that the now named, Waka Kotahi New Zealand Transport Agency is actually committing to zero automotive deaths or serious injury by the year 2050.

It’s a commitment to accountability that might just narrow the gap of effectiveness that has notoriously eluded most public service advertising.

They may just connect awareness to compliance.

Craig Redmond