News Analysis: None for the road

The government has bolstered its attempts to combat drink-driving. Could it go even further, asks Mark Sweney.

Horrific images of death on the roads in cinema and TV ads have become almost as predictable as the rather more palatable turkey and mince pies at Christmas.

Through the 80s and 90s, it seemed that the educational message about the dangers of drink-driving was getting through, as annual deaths caused by drink-drivers fell from 1640 in 1979 to 460 in 1999.

But the trend has reversed and the problem is worsening again, prompting tough questions about how drivers should be reminded of their responsibilities. Government statistics show that 560 people died as a result of being run over by drunk drivers last year.

This year's campaign features the shocking image of a woman being hurled across a table in a bar, as she might be flung through the air had a car hit her. The ads have been showing on TV and in cinemas since late summer as part of a Department for Transport (DfT) strategy to extend the public education programme throughout the year.

Pre-emptive strike

The brief from the DfT to ad agency Leo Burnett was to tackle the issue that drivers, young men in particular, do not think drink-driving is a problem. The aim of the campaign is to reinforce the social stigma of drink-driving and the idea that any amount of alcohol affects the driver's ability to operate a car safely. The work is intended to stop people before they get behind the wheel.

'The DfT research showed that there is a new generation of guys who are complacent about drinking and driving,' says Becky Barry, planning director at Leo Burnett. 'They say they don't drink and drive, but what they mean is that they don't drink a lot and drive.'

The ad, entitled 'Crash', is set in a pub to dramatise the point that it is the decision to order a beer that triggers the accident at the end of the night.

While having great visual impact, the campaign is still not as graphic as ads used in other countries. Would a more shocking approach help assuage the UK's problem?

Australia has been particularly successful in changing public attitudes to drink-driving by using arresting images in ads. Since the Australian Transport Accident Commission's (TAC) first campaign in 1989 - which introduced the strapline 'Drink, drive, bloody idiot' - drink-drive fatalities in the state of Victoria have halved. Interestingly, one of the in-house guidelines set out by TAC's ad agency, Grey Advertising, is 'Be as shocking as you like'.

In the UK, drink-driving ads have historically been less shocking than those run by the TAC, despite the fact that the ASA generally allows public awareness campaigns to push the advertising code limits on causing offence.

'Public awareness, charity and non-commercial companies are normally given a little more leeway, but not carte blanche,' says a spokeswoman for the ASA. 'Research shows that the public are willing to accept more shocking ads that support an important message.'

Demographic targeting

The DfT has employed a number of strategies in recent years to affect different groups - from factual to emotive ads - and Barry argues that the current execution is the right approach to reach young men. 'It is easy to do a big ad with a graphic car crash, but to cut through, we need the decision firmly in the pub, not the car. It is not shock tactics: we needed to be cleverer, because the public are used to seeing graphic movies.'

Edmund King, executive director of the RAC Foundation, believes that the current campaign hits the right note and that the rising fatality rate may be linked to wider governmental decisions. 'Any effective campaign has to be followed by enforcement, yet there has been an 11% reduction in traffic police between 1997 and 2001,' he says.

Nigel Dawson, creative director of Grey Advertising in Melbourne, concurs that any ad campaign must be given appropriate support on the ground, pointing out that the Australian campaign 'has only worked because of the link with police activity'.

Beyond advertising

The UK government has recognised this, and is supporting the development of 'alcolocks'. The devices, which stop a car being started unless the driver has provided a negative breath test, are being tested in Bristol and Birmingham.

It has also briefed brand partnership agency Iris to strike deals with pub and off-licence chains to promote the anti-drink-drive message at point of sale.

Breweries and drinks retailers involved include Greene King, JD Wetherspoon, Young's, Threshers, Fullers and The Spirit Group chain, as well as transport companies Dial-a-Cab and Scooterman.

'The partnership programme has allowed us to go beyond just telling people not to do something,' says Charlotte Mulley, account director at Iris. 'We can tell people what to do - have soft drinks, get a cab - at the crucial decision time.'

According to a spokesman, The Spirit Group sought to be a responsible pub owner without 'dampening the atmosphere' by tying a message to an existing soft drinks promotion. Its poster execution uses the slogan 'One for the road'.

With its campaign's effectiveness measured in human lives, the DfT will be hoping its expanded strategy will help reverse the trend this Christmas.

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