One day, a father is watching his son play football in his garden. Suddenly, an out of control car crashes through the fence and kills him as the helpless man looks on. Another day, a teenager is texting his girlfriend on his old Blokia phone when walking home from school. He doesn’t look both sides before attempting to cross the road, and gets hit by a car.

These two road safety advertisements are some of the very few things I can remember from countless hours of watching Nickelodeon while I was younger. I definitely got their message, though. Women, children and technology are bad for your health; go off and join the priesthood. Maybe not.

What does this any of this mean? There is no doubt that road safety ads are some of the most graphic on television. Think of road safety and you usually picture someone receiving a violent end in an ad. While there is a wide array of graphic road safety ads on display, one might ask why campaigners choose this style to promote their message.

The Theory of Death

Professor Nurit Guttman of Tel Aviv University, Israel, has written extensively on the topic. She published a book, Communication, Public Discourse, and Road Safety Campaigns: Persuading People to Be Safer, on the topic in 2014. It is based on research of government and non-government road safety campaign materials from over forty countries worldwide, including Ireland.

One of her four main ideas on road safety centres on the role of communication campaigns. As they are supposed to create an emotional impact, this could help explain why campaigns resort to graphic ads. This also links in with her first chapter on how road safety is often portrayed as a combat idea. Recurring themes of “we must fight against unsafe drivers” perpetuate this idea of a battle to secure the roads from threats.

This hypothesis is reflected in the road safety material which goes viral. While the ads last long in the memory, the internet has dramatically widened their reach. An article by Sheila Langan for Irish Central, the largest Irish media site in North America, in 2014 argued that they have helped to reduce road deaths. The piece was inspired by the fact that a graphic ad from Northern Ireland on road safety went viral, attracting attention in several big US and Australian sites. The ad in question was Northern Ireland’s Department of Environment (DOE) child-killing ad, designed to highlight the number of child fatalities in the North over the past decade.

The virality element is a new factor which helps to spread the message. The content of the videos is perfectly suited to clickbait titles and entertainment-driven audiences. It has already been used before, with sites running pieces like “17 Shocking PSA videos that will make you a safer driver”. However, some attempts at this have not been so successful. The Irish Mirror labelled a Michelin video of staff lip syncing in order to remind motorists to check their tyre pressure as “cringeworthy.” While the participants may still be feeling the embarrassment years on, it was certainly an interesting and creative way to promote road safety. It also highlighted the fact that not every road safety ad needs to have a ten car pile-up in order to spread the message.

Killing Kids with Gangland Crime and Comedy

Road safety campaigners have been putting the boot into young men way before it became fashionable. Unlike those who followed, they had a legitimate point to make. This has led to creative ads and messages designed to get young male drivers to slow down. Medway Council in Kent ran a “we hope to see you dead soon” satirical ad in 2008, featuring an undertaker jumping out of a coffin to offer a deal to a youth who was texting while driving. Older generations called it a waste of taxpayers’ money but it was certainly novel and offered a new perspective for young people.

Nevertheless, it was the Mexicans who put together what I believe to be the most shockingly effective road safety ad I’ve ever seen. It linked drink driving with gangland violence. A drunk young man leaves a club with his three friends and walks to his car. The three get inside while he goes to the boot. He then proceeds to pull out a shotgun and kill the three of them, before getting into the car and driving off. The caption “killing your friends, is killing your friends” appears onscreen. No further commentary is needed.

The Way Forward?

Creative road safety campaigns should be applauded, for their advertisements mark an attempt by campaigners to engage with young people. This is vitally important, given the usual age disparity between the campaigners and target audience. Are some of these ads condescending? Yes, but at least they try. Fortunately, most manage to avoid comparisons to Steve Buscemi’s iconic “How do you do fellow kids” sketch in 30 Rock. This leads to a vital lesson; the fact there is no end in sight for graphic road safety ads is good for promoting the message. The RSA must remember that their ads are there to save lives, not to appease crybullies on the internet. Moaners be damned, let them get on with the job.

  • Cian Carton, News Editor