From ‘Simple language works best in public campaign advertisements’, 30 Jan 2017, ST Forum
(Michael Loh Toon Seng): An advertisement by the Singapore Police Force, Singapore Road Safety Council and Sgcarmart.com reads: “Get a ride home. Don’t drive to drink, and you will never drink and drive.”
It took me a while to figure out what the message was. At first, I thought it was saying that if you drive to drink, you will never drink and drive again because you will surely die in a road accident.
Why didn’t the ad just say that to avoid having to drive after drinking, don’t drive? A plain “don’t drink and drive” would also have sufficed, as there is strength in simplicity.
It is well and clever to use catchy phrases in ads, but if people cannot grasp a message’s meaning at the first reading, they will likely ignore it. Messages in public campaigns should use plain, easy-to-understand language so that they get the right message across.
The current anti-drunk-driving slogan may be tongue-twistingly catchy as “She Sells Seashells”, but breaks the first rule of public communications; it needs to be re-read at least twice. ‘Don’t drive to drink’ on its own already requires some cognitive juggling to interpret as ‘Don’t drive the car to the pub/bar’, while ‘you will never drink and drive’ requires a background understanding that drinking and driving is bad. There are limits to how you want to play around with words and puns in such a campaign, and while simplicity would work for the first time reader or drinker, people would soon grow tired of repetitive warnings and it’ll just become naggy after a while.
In 2011, the Traffic Police went for the jugular and presented the drink-driving message as an obituary, hoping to shock people into abandoning their cars and alcohol altogether. While the content was painfully obvious, some found it in bad taste.
Like visuals of oozing cancer on cigarette packs, the authorities also tried to pump up the gore factor, with a 2009 campaign that looks straight out of a slasher flick. It may have been too ‘PG’ for some parents’ liking.
So how do you find the middle ground between in-your-face viscera and pedantic finger-wagging? How about a morality tale of killing your best friend and living the rest of your life in eternal regret as an amputee in a wheelchair? This 2005 ad reminds boozers that it’s not just your life at stake when you DnD.
In real life, though, a different story pans out if you happen to be a Mediacorp celebrity. A decade back, Christopher Lee was jailed 4 weeks for drunk driving. Today, he’s still promoting bak kwa during CNY and likely to be given a Lifetime Achievement Award despite his past drunken indiscretion. Drink and drive, and all is forgiven.
Or a light-hearted approach with cute doggies? Check. Though some would say it trivialises a serious crime.
Not saying that such campaigns are entirely futile. The number of drink-driving cases reportedly fell in the first half of 2016, though that could also be attributed to the Government’s overall crackdown on public alcohol consumption, enforcement, the rise of private car hires, ride-sharing and bars offering valet services, or even ‘drink-counting’ apps.
So, like the fact that smoking kills, everyone already knows that drunk-driving does too, but it’ll take more than blunt public announcements to steer the message home. Maybe the Traffic Police can turn their attention to campaigns urging people to actually drive in the right direction on roads too, like ‘Drive on the Right Side of the Road, or we’ll See you on the Other Side’. Hur. Hur.