The strategy behind 50 years of drink-drive campaigns

With the Department for Transport marking 50 years of drink drive ads, Leo Burnett's Josh Bullmore looks back at the campaigns that remain a touchstone for anyone seeking to reduce dangerous behaviour and reviews how those strategies have developed.

The early years: education and enforcement begin

The very first ad aired in 1964. An animation, in distinctly jaunty style, shows an office party in full swing, and spells out the increased likelihood of having a crash after four, six or even eight (!) whiskies.

This was education in the simplest terms. It would soon be matched by enforcement. In 1967 a drink drive limit was set, and the following year roadside breath-tests were introduced.

But after an initial positive impact, casualty levels continued to rise.

Late 70s and early 80s: tackling attitudes

By the late 70s, drink driving was causing nearly 10,000 deaths or serious injuries every year.

The Government turned to communications in earnest. The strategy was to heighten people’s perceptions of the risks.

Television and popular culture were showing endless examples of people drinking. But rarely did you see any negative consequences.

Advertising set out to provide a powerful counterbalance. Some campaigns showed the effect of alcohol on people’s driving and the terrible impact on innocent victims.

Others showed the risks of being caught and facing legal consequences.

Late 80s and early 90s: creating social unacceptability

Casualties were now falling for the first time. But while young men now often understood the risks, they still felt drink driving was socially acceptable.

A strategic masterstroke followed. Rather than target young men directly, communications reached out to their friends, family and communities.

The brief – create nothing less than disgust at those who drank then drove. The advertising shows people’s heart-rending responses to drink drive tragedies - school children reacting to the death of a classmate, or a fireman to a crash scene involving a mother and baby.

This was to prove a decisive moment. The fear of being shunned by society helped reduce casualty levels by over a third in just six years.

The 90s: confronting drivers in denial

The 90s brought fresh challenges. A "culture of intoxication", fuelled by higher strength lagers, alcopops and new licensing hours, surrounded young men with drunkenness.

While many agreed drink-driving was wrong they often didn’t see themselves as the problem. They’d condemn an eight pints drunk driver, but happily get behind the wheel after a couple. In response, advertising showed the tragic consequences of a "quick drink". 

The 2000s onwards: pinpointing the moment of decision

Young men now had a rule of thumb for the limit – one pint ok, three pints bad. So the strategy zeroed in on the decision to drink that second pint, when a one pint after another domino effect could still be short-circuited.

On TV, we saw a pub table where two guys are just about to have a second pint and crash into a girl. And as a young man orders, the barman acts out the chain of personal consequences that awaits.

What has been the cumulative impact of these successive strategies? Well, when records began in the 70s, 28 people were killed or seriously injured on the roads every day in drink driving accidents'

In recent years this has fallen to just four a day. A testament to the ability of communications to help change behaviour.

Leo Burnett has handled the Department for Transport's Drink Drive business for over 30 years. Josh Bullmore, head of planning at Leo Burnett is the author of our IPA Gold winning Paper, "30 years of Drink Drive".

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