If you can’t say something useful, don’t say anything at all

On the stretch of motorway near my town, there’s a sign that infuriates me so much that I’ve begun to take a different route home just to avoid it.

It’s one of those electronic signs that hang across the motorway, much like the one in the picture above. Usually, it’s reserved for critical messages like Strong Winds: Slow Down, or Caution: Roadworks Ahead. They’re messages that benefit me and everyone else on the motorway, making us prepared, aware and safe drivers.

But when there isn’t a critical message to convey, the sign defaults to this: Don’t Drink and Drive.

What’s the problem? I hear you ask. It’s a worthy message in what would otherwise be a blank space, delivered to a captive audience of drivers. What harm can it do?

First, I want to emphasise that I’m not  minimising the impact of drink-driving, which accounts for 13% of all road fatalities in the UK. So the message on my motorway sign is an important and worthy one.

And it’s a message that has been refined and improved for many years now – since 1964, here in the UK – resulting in a dramatic decrease in road casualties caused by drink-driving. There’s a great rundown of 50 years of drink-driving campaigns on the Telegraph website that shows their evolution from simple messages (“Don’t ask a man to drink and drive”) through to more sophisticated, harder-hitting campaigns.

But, for me, the high standard of modern drink-driving campaigns throws into stark relief the futility of my motorway sign. It’s the very definition of a pointless message.

It’s not targeted. Everyone knows that you shouldn’t drink and drive, yet it still happens – why? Is it because people can’t judge how much they’ve drunk? Can judge their alcohol intake, but believe they’re different? End up drinking more than they planned and drive drunk “just this once”? Changing this behaviour requires detailed insight and specific interventions, not simply repeating the mantra over and over again.

It’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re reading the message, you’re already driving, and by that time you’ve either had a drink or you haven’t. It’s too late to change it now.

It might even be counterproductive. There’s nothing like repetition without variation to make someone filter out your message. And, speaking personally, I’m not such a confident driver that I want my motorway journey interrupted by non-critical messages – I’d feel much safer if I were left to concentrate on the road.

If we’re going to change complex and embedded behaviours – not just in drink-driving but all across the sustainability spectrum – this isn’t good enough, even if it’s not our main efforts. We need to be smarter.

How do we do that? Simple: just reverse all the problems highlighted by this motorway sign.

Know what you’re talking about.

I’ve said this many times before, but effective behaviour change begins with amazing insight. You need to know, in detail, why your target audience behaves the way they do. Only then can you begin to craft a message that will resonate with them.

The Embrace Life advertisement, funded by Sussex Safer Roads, focuses on the central character’s love for his family, rather than his own safety. The unspoken question is: what would have happened to them if he hadn’t been wearing a seatbelt? (And it makes me cry no matter how many times I see it. Don’t tell anyone.)

Talk to people in the right place at the right time.

It’s not a difficult one, this, but we seem to get it wrong a lot of the time. To successfully change a behaviour, people need triggers – points where we encourage them to stop, reflect and change – before we can create a new habit.

The UK Government’s Moment of Doubt advertisement does this well, focusing on a man trying to decide whether or not to have another drink before driving home. Although the focus of the film is on the consequences of drink-driving, the key question (“What’ll it be?”) is a trigger for drink-buyers everywhere.

Repeat, with intelligence.

There’s a fine distinction here, so I want to be clear: for most communications, most of the time, repetition is to be encouraged. But a message like “don’t drink and drive” doesn’t suffer from a lack of repetition. It has the opposite problem: most of us have heard it so many times that it becomes background noise. The same goes for exhortations to recycle, turn off the lights, or file your paperwork on time.

To break through the “I’ve heard it all before” response, we need to be more creative. I love Gareth Kane’s animation The Art of Green Jujitsu, which shows how to break out of the cycle of shouting ever louder.

 

Achieving real, lasting changes in behaviour is very difficult – the need for 50 years (and counting) of drink-drive campaigning is testament to that. But that doesn’t mean we need to grab every opportunity to repeat a generic message just in case it makes a difference.

We can do better than that.