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A hard sell to stop mates driving drunk

Wednesday 30th July 2014

You’d think there’s no good reason to drink and drive. And yet the statistics show that there are still people weighing up the perceived risk of getting behind the wheel after a few beers – or even a big night out – and deciding it’s worth it. And for the thousands of crashes, injuries and deaths that result every year, there are many more who arrive home unscathed by luck, not judgement.

Though men and women in all age groups drink and drive, young people are more likely than any other demographic, causing nearly half of all alcohol-related road crashes. Young men, in particular, are at risk: in all fatal or serious injury-related crashes in 2008-2010, 82 per cent of the drinking drivers were male.

Though men drive more than women, that fact alone doesn’t account for the discrepancy between the sexes in drunk driving statistics. There’s evidence to suggest that men simply are more inclined to risk-taking behaviour, in many areas of life.

So the question is, how do we reduce that risk?

"While the consequences of driving drunk are well-known, it's also widely believed that if you drive drunk, it's likely you'll get away with it"

New Zealand Transport Agency

Legislation and enforcement is a no-brainer. Last year the legal blood alcohol limit for driver aged over 20 was lowered from 80 to 50 milligrams per 100 millilitres of blood; it is already zero for under 20s.

But neither alcohol nor cars, in and of themselves, cause crashes: the answer to combatting drunk driving is changing driver behaviour.

That’s where a hard-hitting, high-profile advertising campaign comes in – but it isn’t the easiest message to pitch, says Rachel Prince, principal advisor at New Zealand Transport Agency, when teenagers and 20-somethings are already the target of so much marketing as it is. “We’re selling a product that people do not want to buy,” she says. “It’s much easier to sell them something that they’re excited about.”

She says “a good science” goes into NZTA drink-driving campaigns, starting with a robust understanding of their target audience: who’s causing the harm, and why. “Gaining a really good understanding of that before we put a brief on the table to the advertising agency is key to getting something that’s relevant the other end … Knowing them thoroughly, and having some deep insights into why they’re not buying your product now, and what might make them buy it in the future.”

The “product” Prince refers to is not drinking and driving when the opportunity is there – and as she acknowledges, it can be a hard sell. “It’s basically, in a nutshell, ‘Don’t tell me how to live my life’.”

Lately, NZTA’s focus has been on targeting people on the periphery: those who have the opportunity to stop friends, colleagues or family from driving drunk. It’s the difference between the “bloody idiot” campaign of the late 2000s and the current “bloody legend” campaign – the carrot, not the stick (or the fear factor, as has historically been the case).

Prince says it was a sidestep for the agency, intended to channel the power of peer pressure for good. “Mateship is key for them,” she says of young men and as such, they’re likely to listen to their friends “if it’s couched in the right way”.

From research focus groups, she learned that friends don’t stop friends drink and driving for fear of creating an awkward moment. Prince rattles off some typical excuses young men gave for not intervening at the pivotal point: “‘We don’t want to kill the vibe’, ‘we don’t want to be the dick’, ‘we don’t want to look like the party-pooper’, ‘we don’t want to break the mood’.”

The key to alleviating the awkwardness was in using humour, she says – “coming up with tools that they could use to make it not an awkward moment but a humorous one, and still get the message across”.

The result was ‘Ghost Chips’, an award-winning campaign by NZTA, Clemenger BBDO and The Sweet Shop that quickly became a pop cultural phenomenon. It’s catchphrase after catchphrase (“You know I can’t eat your ghost chips, bro”, “Puzzle time”, “I’ve been internalising a really complicated situation in my head”) that can be quoted to invoke the “don’t drink and drive” message, without having to come out and call your mate “a bloody idiot”.

Three years after it first broadcast, ‘Ghost Chips’ is cemented as a cultural touchstone. But Prince attributes a lot of its success to serendipity: “You can’t guarantee that you can make something go viral.” The final concept, in fact, combined different elements from four of Clemenger BBDO’s ideas that were put to audience testing.

She says the viral success of the ad – which is still referenced by shows like 7 Days and Jono and Ben at Ten, even now – took her a bit by surprise. “It’s the first time that we’ve been in a situation of watching something take off so quickly – and even since then, social media has changed again.”

“Whenever we see an ad full of dead fellas, we just switch off, eh”

NZTA’s campaigns like ‘Ghost Chips’ are assessed from a pure advertising perspective, but their impact in reducing the number of drunk drivers is harder to measure, says Prince. “It’s a contributing factor, but there are a whole world of things going on to achieve safety on our roads, from engineering to safer vehicles to roads that are built so that if someone does crash, they’re not going to drive into a tree trunk,” for example. “Everything plays a role and we’re just one of the cogs in the machine.”

A combination of factors means driving drunk is a lot less socially acceptable now than it was in the mid-90s when the campaign began, says Prince, but it’s still happening, and changing driver behaviour is still a priority. But the new strategy in road safety – instead of penalising people for being “bloody idiots” or using shock tactics like blood and gore – is to understand that everyone makes mistakes – and that everyone has a responsibility to try to prevent them.

Cover image courtesy of New Zealand Transport Agency/Clemenger BBDO.



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