Campaigning for a safer Christmas

Awareness campaigns are becoming more common at Christmas. However some critics argue that over-exposure to such messages may cause the public to ignore them or, worse, create a state of panic. By Sonoo Singh

Just as the misadventures of Del Boy and Rodney Trotter have become a Christmas fixture, the considerably less entertaining corporate messages warning against drink-driving and domestic violence have been added to the list of festive regulars. But there will be a couple of new additions this year – a campaign to warn women about the emerging social problem of drug rape and a push to alert people about the fire hazard of Christmas decorations.

Advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) – aware that drug-rape was fast becoming a major social problem – decided to create its own “Watch your drinks” campaign, backed by the Metropolitan Police (MW last week). The campaign, which uses a combination of TV, cinema, poster advertising and flyers, has been produced free by the agency, and media owners have donated media space.

The onslaught of such hardhitting social messages starts like clockwork when the party season gets going. So, whether people like it or not, such campaigns are thrust down their throats each year. Advertisers admit that there are certain perils attached to dampening Christmas spirits – it’s a course of action that could either lead to a total switch-off or create a state of panic.

A spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police says: “We do not want to frighten people, but we do want people to be aware of the dangers – particularly at a time when they are spending a lot of time drinking in pubs and bars. And, yes, we are concerned about getting the balance right and not creating panic when campaigning against issues such as the increasing incidents of drug rape.”

BBH’s campaign urges women to be on their guard against taking a drink from a stranger or leaving glasses unattended. BBH managing director Gwyn Jones says: “In the recent past there has been a lot of publicity surrounding cases of drug rape, especially around Soho. So we got together with the Metropolitan Police to create an awareness campaign about it.”

Cynics question the motivations behind the campaign. One agency insider says: “It is not that difficult to be seen as socially responsible at Christmas because there are lots of opportunities available to champion a good cause or talk about them. But what is challenging is to actually be able to engage the market and not be seen as a killjoy.”

Jones says that the campaign tackles a serious issue. He points to figures from the Metropolitan Police showing that over the past two years there have been about 100 allegations of drug rape each year. He adds: “This is not about BBH wanting to show that it is socially responsible or about a glamorous award-winning campaign, but about real dangers and real issues.”

However, the fact remains that it is often difficult to create an awareness campaign that actually makes a difference, as government has found out with various attempts over the past 25 years to cut the number of drink-driving incidents over the Christmas period.

Nevertheless the numbers keep rising. According to figures released last January, the number of people caught drink-driving across England and Wales over last Christmas and New Year rose by 15 per cent on the previous year.

In an effort to avoid another increase in drink-driving, Crime-stoppers launched a scheme this week offering members of the public rewards of up to £500 if their call to a free number about a drink-driver leads to a successful prosecution.

Despite questions about the impact of public awareness campaigns, the Government has added fire safety to the issues that need to be addressed during the Christmas period. COI Communications’ sponsorship division is due to run a public relations campaign about the dangers of candles on Christmas trees and informing the public about safety issues surrounding the use of Christmas lights.

Domestic violence is another area that has become part of the seasonal public awareness push. According to government figures released earlier this year, more than 200 women are killed by their husbands or partners every year. This statistic led the Conservative Party to create an outdoor campaign highlighting the fact that one in four women becomes the victim of domestic violence at some point in their lives.

The Scottish Executive has launched campaigns about this issue on Boxing Day since 1998. Chris Wallace, ad director of Barkers, which handles the campaign, says: “The campaign against this abuse has been trying to change attitudes. The key thing about it is that we do not target either the victims or the perpetrators, but the people around them.”

This year, the campaign will use a new execution, which focuses on the effects of domestic violence on children. Wallace believes that if people see or hear messages asking them to abstain from doing things, such as beating their wives or drink-driving, nobody will pay any attention. Christine Tulloch, marketing director of Faulds Advertising, which produces the Scottish Executive’s ads about drink-driving and alcohol misuse, agrees – adding that “finger-wagging” advertising does not work.

She says: “If you are trying to change social behaviour, it takes a long time to do so. More than 25 years ago, when government started tackling drink-driving, drinking was seen as a macho thing to do. But not any more. Binge drinking is another issue we want to change attitudes about and Christmas is the period to start doing this – when people are out enjoying themselves with family and friends.”

Alongside all these messages, Yuletide party-goers will also encounter messages warning them about unprotected sex and smoking.

But a marketing professor at the London School of Economics, Dr Rafael Gomez, says: “People can get easily distracted if there is a flood of similar messages. The question that needs to be asked is what will happen in the absence of such ads, because this kind of social advertising is trying to change behaviour.”

Campaigns trying to change attitudes will continue to be as much an aspect of Christmas as stuffed turkey, sweet sherry and mince pies. However, whether they make a positive difference is hard to tell.


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