Why there is value in public service for major brands

How public service announcement advertising is changing, as well as how brands are increasingly bringing health and safety into their broader purpose efforts

It’s been almost 10 years since Victoria’s Metro Trains and McCann Melbourne had Australians singing about being killed by public transport.

The agency estimated its viral campaign for ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ generated at least $50 million in global media value within two weeks of launch, along with more than 700 stories, follow-up mobile games, and countless parodies, spoofs and imitators. The campaign also picked up a slew of awards, but perhaps more importantly, Metro Trains attributed it with 20 per cent reduction in near-miss incidents at Melbourne’s suburban rail stations (although the campaign’s true effectiveness has been the subject of conjecture).

What ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ indisputably achieved has been elevation of the humble public service announcement (PSA) as a cultural force. And it’s driven a rethink of techniques marketers use to stop people doing harmful things.

Smart ways to survive

The challenge of stopping people from performing risky behaviour is a familiar one for anyone who has worked on transport accident prevention. That includes TBWA Sydney chief creative officer, Evan Roberts.

In his previous role as Melbourne-based executive creative director at Clemenger BBDO, Roberts was instrumental in the creation of the ‘Meet Graham’ campaign. This centred on a sculpture of a human being, Graham, who was designed to be physically equipped to survive a motor accident. Graham was the result of a collaboration between Clemenger, artist Patricia Piccinini, trauma surgeon, Dr Christian Kenfield, and Monash University crash investigation expert, Dr David Logan.

According to Roberts, the creative concept behind Graham arose from the realisation that fear tactics were no longer proving effective when it came to communicating road safety messages.

“We had seen a drop off in engagement, so we needed a creative way to deliver the science of what happens to you in an accident,” Roberts tells CMO. “It was a dramatic hook to get people talking.”

This last point – getting people talking – is what Roberts believes has now become critical for anyone crafting PSAs, especially for categories where no one is listening.

“You still need to strike a chord with people, and you still need real insight and humanity to make people feel something, but it is more nuanced these days,” Roberts says. “And that is because one-way communication – pushing authoritarian messages and fear campaigns – has lost its impact.”

‘Meet Graham’ also picked up a slew of awards, as well as global media coverage. Most importantly for Roberts, it created a centre point for ongoing discussions relating to road safety.

You still need to strike a chord with people, and you still need real insight and humanity to make people feel something, but it is more nuanced these days

Evan Roberts, TBWA


“It is more of a peer-to-peer approach – it’s talking to a friend, as opposed to telling them what to do,” Roberts says. “That changes the way we work and what the creative hook might be, because people need to be actively engaged in the conversation, and often it is a conversation that they are not interested in having,”

Striking a chord

The notion of establishing emotional connection has been a key guide for Terri-Helen Gaynor, chief executive of communications agency, Reputation, in her work on various government health and safety campaigns. Gaynor says one of the challenges for any campaign is convince people from the very beginning that the core message relates to them – not just to other people – and that is best achieved through invoking an emotional response.

“It’s about what resonates with people,” she says. “Emotional awareness is a really big factor in linking people into the messages.

“The barrier is them believing ‘it won’t happen to me’. So you highlight the behaviours, but it’s the emotional stuff that resonates.”

Emotional resonance was high on the list of priorities for creative director, Brendan Day, and his team at independent agency, Town Square, when it developed the ‘Know First Aid – Warehouse’ radio ad for St John Ambulance Victoria. The spot simulates a frantic warehouse worker discovering an injured colleague and calling out in panic for anyone who knows first aid.

Day says the campaign idea grew from the insight that just one in eight Australians knew first aid, and from a British Red Cross report that found an estimated 59 per cent of deaths from accidents could be prevented if first aid was administered before emergency services arrived. This led to Day and the team to consider numerous concepts before settling on exploring what happens at an accident scene before professional first responders arrive.

Day says the intention was to focus on the experience of the warehouse worker rather than the victim, to enable listeners to put themselves into that person’s situation.

“We were inspired by the thought of what happens when a TAC [Transport Accident Commission] ad finishes,” he says. “A TAC ad usually has this crescendo that builds up to something bad happening, and then the ad is over. But what is really interesting about first aid is that it starts when a TAC ad finishes.

“So we started thinking about this idea of the in-between time being where first aid lives. It just felt like such a rich territory to work in.”

Importantly, the campaign execution enabled Town Square to fulfill its brief by raising awareness of both the need for more Australians to learn first aid, and of St John Ambulance as a training provider. It also led to Town Square winning Round 1 of Commercial Radio Australia’s 2023 Siren Awards.

Establishing empathy

Putting the audience in the shoes of someone in crisis was also a theme explored in a recent public service campaign by the integrated communications agency, Think HQ. However, where the St John Ambulance campaign focused on about encouraging people to make a positive change by acquiring new skills, Think HQ’s campaign for the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) focused on putting an end to negative behaviours.

The ‘Racism. It Stops with Me’ campaign was designed to spotlight systemic and structural racism by contrasting the experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds, including white Australians. Think HQ group head of creative, production and digital, Andy Lima, says the core idea flowed from the work of anti-racism activist and academic, Peggy McIntosh’s list of questions for understanding racism and privilege.

Extensive consultations with cultural and community representatives produced a list of 14 questions. These were then put people of various backgrounds, with the resulting responses captured in short videos.

“The target audience was always people without lived experience of racism,” Lima says. “We thought the framing of having questions was the best way to start the conversation. We knew that to talk to middle Australia, we needed to have the right balance and strike the right chord. We needed to find a way to start the conversation but without pointing fingers.

“We needed to be emotional, and for people feel empathy. Just asking the same question could show that people had different experiences.”

The campaign was launched with no paid media budget, although Lima says a solid PR effort including support from Twitter has helped propagate the campaign. Negotiations are taking place to secure donated broadcast time. The long-term goal of the campaign is to drive down the number of racism reports received by the AHRC, and it has already been successful through encouraging more Australians to become AHRC supporters.

For Lima, the experience of working on the campaign has also been highly satisfying. “I’m Brazilian, I’m black and I migrated to Australia 13 years ago,” he says.

“I was probably five when I became aware of my race, but people without lived experience never have to think about it. So if we showed that people have different experiences, that is how we could strike a balance and provide a way into the conversation. Because the moment people feel accused, they shut down and then the conversation stops.”

Up next: Achieving meaningful professional outcomes and the evolution of sustainability and brand purpose in advertising

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