Can ads fight gun crime?

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has vowed to take on the UKs urban gangs and fight youth violence after a spate of high-profile gun and knife murders. But a key issue she has yet to address is the role media communications should play in the battle and whether an ad agency is needed. The Home Office says it is considering the best use of communications regarding this issue (MW last week).

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith has vowed to take on the UK’s urban gangs and fight youth violence after a spate of high-profile gun and knife murders. But a key issue she has yet to address is the role media communications should play in the battle and whether an ad agency is needed. The Home Office says it is “considering the best use of communications regarding this issue” (MW last week).

The Government has run advertising campaigns targeting anti-social behaviour from binge drinking and drink-driving to domestic violence. But a question mark hovers over how far marketing and advertising can help alter extreme forms of social behaviour, such as gang membership and gun crime.

In September, Smith unveiled the “Tackling Gangs Action Programme” following the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool. The £1m crackdown on gangs in London, Greater Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham uses undercover police operations, surveillance techniques and witness protection schemes to fight gang violence. At the launch, the Home Secretary said the affected communities would “absolutely” see a difference this autumn.

But the Home Office has yet to be persuaded that advertising communications should play their part, even though evidence from the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Trident, which seeks to tackle gun crime in London’s black community, suggests advertising techniques can play a role fighting the use of firearms.

Trident has used a viral rap video and TV, radio, cinema and poster ads alongside targeted policing methods in the battle against gun crime. The media strategy aims to keep the issue of gun crime high on people’s agendas and create trust between police and the community. It also seeks to encourage witnesses to come forward with information about gun offences and to find ways of deglamourising guns. The campaign, created by agency Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy, has this year won a Marketing Week Effectiveness Award and the IPA’s Grand Prix for Effectiveness.

If advertising really has such a discernible influence in fighting gun crime, the Home Secretary must decide whether it can be applied to a more general drive against gang violence.

However, a Home Office spokeswoman says: “The Tackling Gangs Action Programme has important elements of communication and community assurance but this does not include paid marketing activity.” She adds: “We are considering the best use of paid communications regarding the overall issue of young people and violence and are not yet in a position to talk about finalised campaigns or communications strategies.”

According to MCBD planning director Andy Nairn, the Trident campaign, which has run for three years and cost £750,000, has seen a huge rise in people coming forward with information about guns. One 2005 poster carried the line “Don’t get blood on your hands – if you know about a gun, call Crimestoppers anonymously” and was followed by an 86% rise in hotline calls about gun crime in 2005 compared to 2004, up from 91 to 153.

“Nairn says: “It is a classic advertising task to build trust and involvement with an audience. To encourage people to volunteer information, you can dramatise the consequences of inaction, saying if you don’t come forward you share in the guilt and could be letting innocent people die.”

Nairn continues: “The gun crime rate has gone down long term, but we wouldn’t claim it is entirely due to advertising. However, we’ve got more people calling in, greater news coverage and increased awareness of the issue.”

However, statistical evidence to back up the claim that advertising has helped stem gun crime is open to question. The City of Westminster has seen gun offences rocket by 100% this year, with gun-enabled crimes doubling to 122 in the 12 months to October 2007 compared to the same period the previous year. Overall, gun crime in London is up 4.6% this year to 3,515 offences.

However, Nairn says current gun crime levels in London are among the lowest of the past five years, significantly down from 2004’s record 3,966 gun-related offences. This year’s figures also show a marked decline in gun crime in four of the five boroughs targeted by Operation Trident, with falls of up to 15%. But a worrying trend appears to be a dramatic rise in people under the age of 20 who are victims of gun crime. In 2003, 31 homicides involved under-20s – 16% of the total – and by 2006 this had risen to 79, or 31%.

So the figures may not be sufficiently conclusive to persuade the Home Secretary that advertising is an essential element in tackling gangs. But Smith may also baulk at the cost of advertising. The £250,000 a year cost of the Operation Trident communications sounds low when set against brand marketing campaigns from blue-chip companies. But if applied to other trouble hotspots across the country, it could almost match the entire £1m budget of the Tackling Gangs Action Programme.

And some are sceptical that advertising can target hardened gang members. Jesse Basset, head of planning at digital agency Profero, says: “Advertising has a limited role at the hard end of the scale in trying to change the minds of young people who have decided to carry a gun.” However, he says ads can influence those on the periphery of gang violence and prevent them being swept up by it. It can also challenge the glamorous perceptions associated with gangs that are present in youth culture.

Another source adds: “If advertising can do anything, then surely it is to make things seem glamorous or not. It can have a role in making guns seem uncool.”

But an observer says: “Gangs are this year’s hot crime topic because there has been a high incidence of shootings and stabbings. But I don’t think advertising is the issue here: it is not the thing that is going to stop youth gun crime.”

The Home Office is preparing to unveil a new campaign to tackle binge drinking, but many believe that strategies to address guns and gang violence are more dependent on police action than shifting attitudes. As with young people and smoking, ad campaigns can worsen the situation by making the behaviour seem even more anti-authoritarian, thus appealing to rebellious youth.

Even so, the Home Secretary can look to Operation Trident for a well-researched case study as she decides on the role of advertising in fighting gang violence.

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