A criminal approach to marketing social utopia

Central and local government talk a good game in the fight against crime and urban decay, but they forget that image really is everything. By Sean Brierley

This month I have been waging a one-man war on crime in North London – I’m Islington’s answer to Bruce Willis. Two weeks ago, four baseball-capped teenage scallies tried to break into a business at the back of my flat. I opened the window and told them that if they didn’t leave, I’d phone the police. As they jumped on their push bikes one turned to me and with true “roll-out-the-vowel” Mockney charm yelled “We’re gonna come back and rob your fackin’ ‘aahs, you Norven cant.”

He must have heard about my &£90 kettle.

What annoyed me most about this weren’t the threats – I’ve been threatened with much worse by Marketing Week readers – it was the fact it took place in broad daylight. In the past, criminals had a fear of being seen; burglary and street crime were strictly nocturnal pursuits. Now street crimes are committed during the day and in front of people who, on the whole, purposely ignore what they see. Some of this can be ascribed to the irritating English habits of minding your own business and avoiding confrontation. The most a criminal can expect is a loud tut, or perhaps the more urban suck on the teeth.

The main reason for the rise in the visibility of crime is society’s growing complicity in it and people’s refusal to intervene. The fact that people no longer chastise others for dropping litter or driving the wrong way down one-way streets adds to the sense that people just don’t care – or rather, are too afraid to say something, or don’t want to appear strange by saying something.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point he discusses former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s initiative to reduce street crime. Primarily this involved attacking lower-level crimes, such as graffiti – when graffiti appeared it was removed the next day – fare-dodging on the metro and “squeegee men” at traffic lights. The principle was that a culture of lawlessness had developed and the realms of acceptability had shifted. Gradually, the boundaries of acceptability shifted again and crimes such as mugging were radically reduced.

It follows criminologists’ Broken Window theory, which asserts that if a window is broken and left unrepaired, passers-by will conclude no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, so the theory goes, more windows will be broken and a sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on to which it faces, sending a signal that “anything goes”.

This theory should resonate with marketers. As soon as the brand environment is infected with a negative element, the infection spreads and consumers start to turn away in droves.

Councils have mistakenly dismissed the state of the urban environment as mere “window-dressing”; not one of the real issues such as poverty, housing and, ironically, street crime. In fact, this is one area of life where window-dressing is more important than the so-called “real” issues. In this instance, image really does matter. What you communicate to the public in terms of the way an area looks has a direct effect on housing, education and on crime.

The Government and local authorities are aware of the Giuliani experiment and have paid lip-service to it with the “zero tolerance” soundbite. Though there have been some localised police initiatives, the Government appears to have missed the point – it is not primarily the police who need to enforce “zero tolerance” but local authorities, which allow abandoned cars to remain on the road for weeks, graffiti to stay on buildings for years and litter to clog the streets. The one honourable exception to this is the zeal and drive that councils have exercised in enforcing parking restrictions, now a major revenue-earner for the local authorities.

The result has been a saccharine, “zero-tolerance lite”, which has seen police forces launch month-long “initiatives” and “operations”. These can often reach absurd proportions. When, for instance, the West Midlands Police decides to do something about the theft of clubs at a well-known golf course, it gives it the label “Operation Countryfile”. I counted eight such “operations” on West Midlands Police’s website, including Operation Headway – which involved sending postcards to known criminals with an image of Birmingham nick saying “Wish You Were Here..?”. That’ll scare ’em.

Meanwhile, you can count on Yours Truly, The Last Boy Scout, to wield the sword of justice. Or maybe not.

Last week, I spotted a man in a car pulling out a car stereo, removing the wires. This time, I decided that rather than warn the thief off so he could rob someone else’s car, I’d ring the police so they could catch him red-handed.

As I left the scene, I imagined the police swooping like avenging angels with the obligatory helicopter overhead and the Armed Response Unit as back-up. Within minutes I got a call informing me that the man had been confronted and had turned out to be a very shaken car owner who had been changing his in-car stereo. Next month, I think that I might join the rest of London and keep my big mouth shut.

Sean Brierley is a former deputy editor of Marketing Week and author of the Advertising Handbook

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