Can advertising halt spiralling gun crime?

A dramatic surge in gun crime across many parts of London this year demands a radical response from Home Secretary Jacqui Smith.

As she attempts to demonstrate that the Home Office is “fit for purpose”, she must come up with strategies to address spiralling street violence through the “Tackling Gangs Action Programme” launched in September.

One consideration is whether to employ the services of an advertising agency in the drive to dampen the glorification of guns so prevalent in our society.

Both the Home Secretary and Prime Minster Gordon Brown need to act decisively to stem the tidal wave of gun crime. The question is whether advertising can help – but it is not an easy one to answer.

What is clear that something must be done and fast. We can reveal that in the borough where the PM has been a long-standing resident – Westminster – gun-enabled crime has doubled this year, with gun-related incidents rising a terrifying 100% to 122.

This shocking statistic is matched by others hidden away on the Metropolitan Police website, which lists, by London borough, crimes committed in the 12 months to October 2007 compared with the same period in 2006.

In Camden, gun crime has soared by 33% this year and in the borough of Merton it has rocketed by 42.9%. Four other London boroughs have experienced rises of near or more than 20%. In Lambeth, the gun crime capital of London, incidents have jumped by 6.2% over the period to 273.

Across the capital as a whole, gun-enabled crimes – where a fake or real firearm or airgun is seen or used – have risen 4.6% this year to 3,515.

This is a chilling reminder that, while crime as a whole is falling, the most pernicious form of violence of all is blasting holes in the security that we once took for granted.

However, the Met statistics reveal one fascinating insight. In the five boroughs targeted by Operation Trident, the overall figure for gun crime has declined – in some cases dramatically.

Trident, you will remember, is a concerted effort to stamp out gun crime in black communities. It claims that in 75% of London shootings, victim and perpetrator are black. More than 300 police officers and 70 support staff work on the operation and are advised by black community leaders.

One striking feature of the scheme, apart from the targeted commitment of so many police resources, is the powerful use made of communications created by ad agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy.

It created an anti-gun music track called Badman, performed by Roll Deep, to shatter the myth that guns are “cool”, only later revealing it was part of Operation Trident. More than 360,000 people watched the video on YouTube and Trident’s website stoptheguns.org received ten times its normal traffic. The video scooped a Marketing Week Effectiveness Award this year.

So has Operation Trident – and the use of ad agency communications – been effective in reducing gun crime?

Trident-related murders have fluctuated over the years. But the Met’s figures show gun-enabled crimes falling in areas targeted by Trident. They are 5% down in Southwark, 16% down in Brent, 15% in Hackney and level in Haringey. Of the five targeted boroughs, only Lambeth has seen a rise.

There may be a displacement effect with gun crime chased out of some boroughs through a concentration of police resources only to surface in other boroughs.

But this year’s overall rise in gun-related incidents and a doubling over three years of under-20s involved in shootings suggests Trident is failing to stem the rise in gun crime across the whole capital.

MCBD’s advertising approach may tell the population at large that the Met is doing something about gun crime. But it is failing in its ultimate aim of reducing gun-related incidents and shootings.

Then again, who knows how much worse the situation could have been without the campaign? Surely if advertising techniques can do anything, it is to make a form of behaviour look “cool” (soft drinks, cigarettes, and in the US, guns) or “uncool” (smoking, drink-driving).

There is much for the Home Secretary to chew on as she develops a strategy to tackle this most pressing of problems.

But she should definitely listen to suggestions from the ad industry about de-glamorising firearms – even if she ultimately rejects those ideas.

David Benady

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