The Metropolitan Police is launching a crackdown next month on the capital’s drug dealers, in the third of its operational campaigns against the crimes Londoners fear most.
It follows two high-profile operations by the Met – Operation Bumblebee launched in 1993, designed to target burglars, and the launch last August of Operation Eagle Eye, the anti-mugging initiative.
But the anti-drug dealer campaign will not be accompanied by the kind of advertising that marked out the other two campaigns, according to advertising agency sources.
If the Met is drawing back from using the high-profile advertising that brought Bumblebee and Eagle Eye to the public attention, it raises the question of whether such campaigns really do their job – cutting down on crime.
The Met’s pitch for an agency to take its anti-crime work forward over the next three years has collapsed in disarray, with big-name agencies pulling out after questioning the client’s commitment to high-profile advertising.
Budgets for the campaign may have been pegged by the Home Office under new methods of allocating funds. These days, individual police forces have to pitch ideas at the Home Office to get funds for ad campaigns. There is a tradition of antipathy between the Home Office and police forces. The indications are that the Met has lost faith in the usefulness of above-the-line campaigns in cutting crime, seeing them more as a way of building the force’s profile before the public.
The recent operational campaigns are not designed simply to frighten the criminals out of their errant behaviour. They are also designed to build the Met’s image before a public cowed by fear of crime, and to reassure Londoners that justice is being seen to be done. Advertising messages form a key part of this strategy. But does it really help to cut crime, or is it part of a PR exercise for the Metropolitan Police?
London School of Economics criminologist Paul Rock says: “There is a suspicion about the effectiveness of initiatives like Operation Bumblebee. The police have a tendency to store up a bank of cases and go for high-profile busts. The campaigns are largely symbolic; in effect they say the police are still in control. It’s almost theatre.”
Like all advertising, anti-crime campaigns can backfire if the product – or “service” in this case – does not live up to the campaign that promotes it. The Met claims its anti-crime initiatives have had a real effect on crime rates in the capital, though last month’s crime statistics showed an overall decline of just 1.1 per cent in recorded crime in 1995. This is hardly likely to persuade Londoners that the capital is a safer place to live.
The Met says crime has fallen in London for the third consecutive year, and that the areas targeted by their operational campaigns have seen crimes fall more heavily than non-targeted areas. Car crime fell by six per cent, which the Met attributes to crime-prevention initiatives.
But burglaries, the objective of Operation Bumblebee, rose by nine per cent last year. The Met says this is due to a new method of classification – what was previously classed as criminal damage is now classed as burglary. But there is evidence that burglaries are not being reported, since only two per cent of them ever reach court.
Last year, muggings increased by a worrying 17 per cent, despite the launch of Operation Eagle Eye last August. The Met argues that Eagle Eye was successful, as muggings in February were down 28 per cent compared with August.
The ad campaigns are also designed to make the public more aware of particular crimes and what they should do about them – maybe thinking twice before going to cash machines late at night, or simply locking the windows before going to work.
The new campaigns have been used primarily to ease the fear of crime. This has been identified by Home Secretary Michael Howard as one of the key roles of the police – to put the public’s mind at ease about crime. Chris McCleod, deputy managing director at Collett Dickenson Pearce, who used to work on the Met account at Laing Henry, says: “It is easy to frighten people. There’s always a balance between concentrating on the fear of crime and doing ads which stimulate that fear.”
But there is another group being targeted by the advertising – the criminals themselves. The Met’s “target audience” is the opportunist criminal in it for a bit of fun – often kids after some excitement.
The idea that criminals are put off committing crimes by advertising sounds scarcely credible. But figures on the car crime initiative seem at a glance to back up that thesis. The Home Office anti-car crime campaign through Leagas Shaffron Davis launched nationally in 1992 and featured a pack of hyenas – that animal motif again – climbing over a car. The campaign was a success, according to the figures.
When launched in 1991, car crime was increasing at 18 per cent a year. The rise was just four per cent in 1992, and it actually declined in 1993 by two per cent, and by ten per cent in 1994. The rate of decrease slowed in 1995, and overall was down four per cent.
“The campaigns target the criminals and demean them,” says Nick Webb, anti-car crime account handler at Leagas Shaffron. “Research shows there are three types of car criminal: the opportunists such as joy riders; the thieves who take things from cars; and the professionals about whom you can do very little. But you can change the attitudes of the younger groups through peer group pressure. Advertising is a really worthwhile way to change attitudes significantly.”
Campaigns such as the anti-car crime initiative undoubtedly have a political dimension, coming as they do from the Home Office rather than individual police forces. They form part of the Home Secretary’s attempt to engender a sense of social responsibility, and show that the Government is taking public concerns seriously.
The forthcoming anti-drug dealer drive will run alongside the existing campaigns, but the Met’s 800,000 advertising budget is unlikely to be expanded, according to the Met’s deputy corporate affairs boss Charles Doddsworth. Existing resources will be made to sweat.
The Met called a statutory review of its account last November, and attracted the attention of six top agencies, including incumbent Saatchi & Saatchi. But the pitch quickly disintegrated as major agencies pulled out, claiming that the brief was more for a through-the-line campaign than the sort of creative work that had been produced by Laing Henry, which held the account when it was bought by Cordiant.
Leagas Delaney, BMP DDB, Ogilvy & Mather, DFSD Bozell and Saatchi itself quickly dropped out of the pitch. Jennifer Laing at Saatchi explains: “We withdrew, along with BMP, because the Met changed the brief. We did high-visibility stuff, but they want to adopt a lower profile, more pragmatic approach. We think that house and street crime campaigns needed to continue with a high profile, but the brief does not call for it.”
Hardly an appetising prospect for the remaining advertising agencies looking to win the Met account. Left on the pitch, and anxiously waiting for a reply, is agency Ardley Phillips Horrell. It has blamed the delay on the resurgence of terrorism, which has diverted the Met’s attention.
The anti-drug dealer campaign has yet to be given a catchy, animal-based name, though Operation Horseback is one suggestion. The Met would do well to avoid any PR gaffes like the one that accompanied the launch of Operation Eagle Eye, when the commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, said the Met would be targeting black youth.
Doddsworth is candid about the problems ahead: “We are looking for a strategic view. We have lots of important messages, and we need an agency to demonstrate that it can hang them together. People automatically know what the Metropolitan Police stands for, but branding is difficult with so many different campaigns.”
The strategy for the operational campaigns is a many-sided assault on particular sorts of crime. Suspects are targeted in a way previously used only for serious crimes, with resources and intelligence-gathering focused on particular areas of crime and particular criminals rather than in the random manner of the past.
There was a marked change in the way the Met used advertising and built its image with the public after the appointment of Condon as commissioner in 1993. In previous campaigns, the Met used advertising to recruit new officers. The ads have featured striking images, such as veteran Vietnam photographer Don McCullen’s picture of a youth spitting at a policeman. There were also lurid pictures of victims, which only added to the public’s fears of crime. One insensitive poster from the late Eighties even proclaimed: “We’re pleased to announce an increase in reported rapes,” alongside a picture of a battered woman.
However, the new approach risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the aim is to improve burglary clear-up rates, the police may ignore reported crimes which are seen as impossible to solve, such as theft from cars.
Criminologists, as we have seen, are sceptical of these public relations exercises and even suspect they distort the real nature of crime. They believe certain types of crime are becoming endemic.
Take burglaries: most are committed by poor people against other poor people in the same neighbourhood; it becomes impossible, or too expensive, to secure insurance on properties in that area. Correspondingly, burglaries in these self-same areas are less likely to be reported, and this drives the reported crime figures down.
A further problem is the use of performance indicators – if a certain number of arrests are needed they will probably occur whether they lead to convictions or not.
However, the key issue for the coming advertising campaign is not so easily dismissed. How to reassure the public that the Met cares about crime and takes it seriously. Most members of the public are not victims of crime, but their perceptions are all-important to the police and the Government. Public confidence in the police is something that can be measured, and this is the indicator that will reveal whether the ad campaigns have hit the mark.