Shock or snore: Do graphic road-safety ads still work?

A Kombi van hurtles along the road, its sleepy male driver nodding off at the wheel before slamming into the side of an oncoming truck. The truckie leaps out of the cabin and surveys a scene of carnage, his shoulders slumping in despair.

The graphic 1994 television commercial still ranks among the most powerful 90 seconds of road-safety advertising in Australia. It is permanently seared into the memory of a generation of drivers and is considered one of the best examples of how the normally superficial world of advertising can help save lives and lifelong injury.

But nearly 20 years on from when it and dozens of other grisly scenes first aired, do such shock tactics still work?

Click here to watch some of the best Australian and international road safety ads

Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission (TAC), which commissioned the infamous Kombi ad, isn’t so sure.

The TAC’s road safety and marketing senior manager, John Thompson, said even though the safety message remained much the same, the way it was now delivered was fundamentally different.

“The use of graphic reality was the result of research the TAC undertook in the late 1980s and one of the key findings of that research was the only way to change driver behaviour was to shock, outrage and appal,” he said.

 “But the missing element of that research was surprise. You need to surprise people with communication; surprise helps engage them, so just showing car crashes and violence isn’t enough anymore. Now, we surprise by finding different ways of telling the message.”

Today, the TAC has moved away from graphic scenes in favour of slick, more mature campaigns spread via social media.

The latest, on Pinterest, illustrates what is involved in planning a funeral for a crash victim.

Last year, the tiny Victorian town of Speed temporarily changed its name to Speedkills following a viral TAC Facebook campaign. In 2009, the TAC posted a compilation of 20 years’ worth of ads online. It has been viewed more than 14 million times. Advertising in video games is also being used to target males under 40.

And in a demonstration of how shock tactics aren’t the only way to spread the road-safety message, the NSW Roads and Maritime Service struck gold in 2009 with a campaign linking speeding to the size of male genitalia.

Known as ‘the pinkie campaign’, the unique ad targeted the social unacceptability of speeding, rather than the potential consequences. The ‘Speeding. No one thinks big of you’ tagline left the viewer with few doubts about what the pinkie gesture referred to.

An independent review found the campaign was one of the state’s most successful, with 70 per cent of young men reporting it had some effect in encouraging young drivers to obey the speed limit.

Road-safety experts generally agree advertising helps drive down the road toll, especially when run simultaneously with special police-enforcement activities; however, its exact benefit is hard to measure.

“These campaigns are not like a Mars Bar campaign you run for three weeks and watch your sales increase by 20 per cent. This is a slow burn, behavioural-change campaign,” Mr Thompson said, stressing marketing was only one piece of the road-safety puzzle.

“If you took the 1970s' levels of death in Australia and you applied that to the current Victorian population, the road toll would be somewhere around 1700 a year in Victoria alone. It was about 1400 nationally last year, so we’re making inroads.”

Victoria has the lowest fatality rate per head of population of all Australian states and territories.

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