Close-Up: Are anti-knife crime ads working?

Knife crime is on the rise in spite of high-profile campaigns. Anne Cassidy asks if they are effective.

Stabbings are nothing new. But the intensity, frequency and youth of the perpetrators, added to constant media coverage, has led Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, to describe them as "a new kind" of crime.

And it might seem as though anti-knife ads are almost as prolific as the crimes themselves, with the likes of the Met Police and MTV joining the Home Office in launching campaigns. The Home Office alone has run a series of online and radio ads - including "CCTV", a viral film showing "footage" of a knife fight in which a boy has his own knife turned on him, and "girlfriend" a radio ad that went on to win an Ariel award. But are any of these actually persuading young people to limit their use of knives to the dinner table?

Not according to the media. Unsurprisingly, the Daily Mail depicts a Britain on the verge of knife crime Armageddon, but even the less hysterical papers were quick to call time on the Government's £3 million "It doesn't have to happen" ad campaign, launched in May last year, after Home Office figures last week showed fatal stabbings of over-20s in inner city areas went up to 103 from 96 a year earlier during the first stage of the campaign.

Is the hype justified? The Home Office doesn't think so, rebutting suggestions that the campaign isn't working by pointing out that incidents involving 19-year-olds and under were down 17 per cent during the campaign's first phase. The Government also maintains that knife-crime incidents have peaked and a decline is expected.

It also says that the myriad factors that contribute to incidents of knife crime, such as policing and legislation, mean viewing statistics on stabbings in isolation is unwise.

For the "It doesn't have to happen" campaign, the Home Office worked with young people who had direct experience of knife crime in order to develop and originate ideas for the ads. They worked with Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R on "CCTV" and "girlfriend", as well as another online execution which puts the viewer in the position of someone who has their own knife turned on them in a fight.

Effectiveness data indicates that it has struck a chord with its target audience of ten- to 16-year-olds. Overall, the campaign generated more than 12 million views of its viral ads and more than 187,000 visits to the Home Office's online campaign hub. And, a Mori survey showed 73 per cent of ten- to 16-year-olds agreeing the ads made them less likely to carry a knife.

Last week, another ad, this time by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO for the Met Police and launched on YouTube, asked users to choose whether or not to stab someone. It has received more than 230,000 views and generated online chat since it was uploaded.

The campaigns have tended to launch via social media as opposed to on more traditional channels, which some argue explains why they might be taking time to have any palpable effect. Others claim that a more accurate reflection of their success, or otherwise, will become clear in years to come.

Alistair Graham, a creative partner at Ogilvy, who created an anti-knife-crime ad for MTV, says: "For some people, carrying a knife is a way of life, so campaigns have to sneak up on you."

Meanwhile, Aron Jervis, a knife- crime victim who is helping the Home Office with its advertising, is optimistic: "You're not going to change someone's mindset overnight, but because of the campaign a lot of young people have opened their eyes."

AGENCY MD - Michael Pring, managing director, Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

"The simple answer to this question is 'not yet'. With 23 teenage knife-related deaths in the past year, it would be impossible to answer any more positively. However, it would be short-sighted to expect 12 months and a £3 million campaign to solve such a complex issue.

"Young people carry knives for a whole host of reasons. Success will lie in achieving three things. First, mobilising a range of stakeholders to tackle the problem from all angles.

"Second, developing campaigns that find a way of credibly connecting with teenagers. And third, sustaining the effort for as long as it takes to turn the tide."

CLIENT - Sharon Sawers, head of marketing, strategy and insight, Home Office

"Communications alone won't solve this problem but they can make an impact and really enhance all of the other measures that the Government has put in place. Changing behaviour takes time, but we are confident in our approach.

"We used kids who have carried knives to design our campaign, and we know from research that it's having an impact with 73 per cent saying our ads make them less likely to carry a knife because they are more aware of the risks. I'd point cynics to our Bebo community where more than 10,000 young people have spread the word that it really doesn't have to happen."

YOUTH WORKER - John Boagey, director of communications, National Youth Agency

"Research indicates a 17 per cent drop in violent offences following the Tackling Knives Action Programme. How much the Home Office's ad campaign contributed to that change is hard to assess, but more than ten million young people saw the ads online or heard them on the radio.

"Young people also designed the campaign. There are no simple answers to resolving knife crime and advertising on its own won't work. But where it reinforces existing community initiatives and provides resources and skills to build a powerful communications programme, then there is a much greater chance of success."

CLIENT - Mark Lund, chief executive, COI

"Affecting behaviour change requires long-term investment. Over time government campaigns have helped to make drink driving and not wearing a seatbelt socially unacceptable, and they've played a role in England having the lowest smoking rates on record. "With our clients we evaluate all campaigns against agreed criteria. COI develops innovative systems like our award-winning evaluation tool COI Artemis to aid this. We also commission research, manage campaign tracking databases and monitor the performance of our agencies. We ensure value for money for government advertising, last year securing a 50 per cent saving on media costs."