How we learnt to think before we drink

Leo Burnett's Josh Bullmore reflects on a 20-year campaign that has changed attitudes, cut crime and saved thousands of lives.

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The world was a very boozy, shouty place when we began working on government drink-driving campaigns. It was the early 90s and lad culture was at its height. The prevailing young male attitude was best conveyed by the lads’ mag Loaded’s launch manifesto: "Loaded is… drinking, eating, playing and living. Loaded is the man who believes he can do ANYTHING."

This feeling of invincibility shaped attitudes. Young men knew drink-driving was socially unacceptable, but thought you were only drink-driving if you’d had a skinful. They didn’t see an issue with their own behaviour – driving after a "quick drink" was fine, wasn’t it?

We focused on debunking this attitude and showing the potentially lethal consequences of that quick drink. Our "drink driving wrecks lives" campaign was launched in 1992 with "eyes", a harrowing ad focusing on the motionless face of a crash victim treated by paramedics while, in the background, you heard the driver being taken away by the police. (Incidentally, the crash victim in the ad was played by the original 90s ladette, Denise van Outen, before she was famous.)

The portrayal of disability caused by drink-driving in our 1995 ad "Dave", showing a mum feeding her severely disabled son, was so hard-hitting, it sparked controversy at the time.

Drink-driving itself dates back to at least 1897, when a George Smith was the first person to be charged, for crashing his taxi into the front of a Bond Street shop while under the influence.

By the late 70s, when accurate records began, nearly 10,000 people were being killed or seriously injured by drink-driving each year, prompting the Government to turn to communications for the first time.

Young men on the roads in the 70s and early 80s hadn’t much sense of the risks of drink-driving. They typically estimated the legal limit to be two pints, but believed they could drink three pints without it affecting their driving. They also thought there wasn’t much chance of being stopped by the police and facing legal consequences. As a result, more than half of male drivers and nearly two-thirds of young male drivers were drink-driving on a weekly basis.

The Department for Transport sought to use advertising to highlight the risks of drink-driving. In response, people killed or seriously injured in drink-driving accidents fell by a quarter from 9,940 in 1979 to 7,430 in 1986. Attitudes also improved, but drink-driving casualties were still unacceptably high, so a different tack was required.

Rather than target just young men, a new communications strategy was adopted to aim at society as a whole and make drink-driving socially unacceptable. Heart-rending emotional reactions of people caught up in drink-drive tragedies – a schoolchild mourning the death of a classmate, or a fireman attending a mother and baby at a crash scene – were used in the campaigns of that period.

Between 1986 and 1992, this approach helped reduce the number of people killed or seriously injured by drink-driving by 37 per cent. By the end of the 90s, the approach toughened and graphic reconstructions of real road accidents were used to show young male drivers the stark reality of what might happen if they drank and drove.

In 2000, the DfT faced a raft of new road-safety issues, such as drug-driving. More issues meant the need to target more road-users, not just young men. This, along with a fragmenting audience owing to changes in media consumption, led to the creation of an umbrella identity for the entire road-safety effort and Think! was born.

While drink-driving by then had an obvious social stigma, young men driving under the influence of drugs did not accept it was dangerous, according to government research at the time. "Eyes", our TV ad featuring a car full of young people with enlarged eyes, showed how the police could tell drug-affected drivers by their dilated pupils. We were proud of the fact that it made drug-driving part of the national conversation for the first time.

Two-thirds of adults surveyed about the campaign were aware of it, and half believed that the police would be able to tell drug-drivers from their eyes.

Think! also managed to cut through to a hard-to-reach teenage audience who crossed the road on autopilot with "cameraphone", our 2005 ad filmed entirely by teens for teens on a mobile phone. Within two weeks of launch, the ad, which had a raw-footage feel and disturbing audio, had been seen by one-third of UK teens who said they would think again about road safety as a result.

In addition, we made a series of ads designed to seed doubt in the mind of a potential drink-driver by pinpointing the moment when they are about to order a second pint. The best example of this was "moment of doubt", featuring a barman morphing into a range of characters, including a policeman, a magistrate, an employer, a car dealer and a wife, to show the potential consequences of drink-driving.

Our latest, and last, work before leaving the Government Procurement Service roster was "pub loo shocker". Showing patrons of a public toilet getting an almighty shock, it was hailed by The Huffington Post as "so terrifying, it might save lives". The ad notched up seven million YouTube views in its first week.

Over the first three decades of drink-driving campaigns alone, not only were 2,000 lives saved, but 10,000 serious injuries were prevented. The value of this to society is an estimated £3 billion. The drink-drive campaign, in turn, won us an IPA Effectiveness gold in 2012.

The number of people killed or seriously injured in drink-driving accidents on Britain’s roads each day has fallen from 28 in 1979 to less than one in 2011. But the need for creative communication that is both agile and powerful enough to change behaviour and save lives is just as great as it has always been.

Josh Bullmore is the head of planning at Leo Burnett London