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Does this nightmare image of a young child seconds from death really save lives on our roads?

Laurence White talks to the award-winning team behind the TV drive safe campaigns to find out if the shock tactics really work

It is one of the most shocking and graphic advertisements shown on our television screens. A young boy is happily playing in his garden when suddenly, and without warning, he is mown down by a car which crashes through the garden fence. The driver was drunk.

Or maybe you remember the scenes, shot in ultra-slow motion, of a young man in the back seat of a car whose head smashes repeatedly into those of his fellow passengers after a crash. He wasn’t restrained by a seat belt.

Or was it the scene of a young widow standing by the grave of her husband — killed in a car crash — as the haunting words of the song ‘You Don’t Bring Me Flowers Anymore’ plays in the background.

Maybe it is the understated, but chilling, words of surgeon Gerry Lane that brings home the horror of road fatalities to you. He knows the reality of the death toll that the adverts are trying to stem. He is a surgeon at Letterkenny General Hospital in Co Donegal where the eight victims of Ireland’s worst ever road crash almost a fortnight ago were brought.

No matter where you live in Ireland you will have seen these advertisements. And, research shows, you will have remembered them. Public awareness of the advertisements runs at 85%-90%, a figure double the norm for ordinary product campaigns.

They are the work of David Lyle and Julie Anne Baile, the creative team who have been working on road safety campaigns in Northern Ireland since 1995 and in the Republic since the following year.

And they make some quite astonishing claims for the effectiveness of those campaigns.

They say their model for measuring effectiveness — which has been validated by the Oxford Economics consultancy — shows that 31,206 people are alive and well across Ireland who might otherwise have been killed or seriously injured.

In economic terms the payback has been £34 per £1 invested (€34 to €1).

Other research shows that the public believe the advertisements have the greatest influence in cutting the death toll on the roads — now at an historically low level on both parts of the island — ahead of factors such as enforcement, new legislation, education in schools, safety features in vehicles, road engineering improvements or news coverage of fatalities.

However, they are at pains to point out that advertising does not work in isolation.

“What the campaigns do is create a climate of opinion which supports the work of the police and the courts. They create a public mood which says, for example, that drink driving is wrong, or that speeding is wrong or that we should all wear seatbelts.”

David and Julie Anne know what it takes to influence people, having worked on a series of anti-terrorist and peace advertising for the Northern Ireland Office before the paramilitary ceasefires.

Part of their success, they say, is due to the fact that both genders are represented in the creative process — most advertising is created by men. But, more importantly, a lot of psychological research goes into the process. Their agency has a resident psychologist in the team.

Says David: “A lot of advertising skims the surface. We need to go much deeper. We are not happy just holding a couple of focus groups. Our psychologist reviews the literature on each subject we tackle; she probes for the psychological triggers that make the adverts work and she helps carry out scientific testing of our ideas.”

The tests include a split-second by split-second cognitive and affective response measurement to advertising and the use of a finger sensor device which measures emotional reactions through galvanic skin responses up to 32 times a second.

Julie Anne says these tests enable them to see what scenes work best. But the team also like to watch the target groups to gauge their reactions. “Often what is unsaid is more important than what is said,” she adds. “If an advertisement produces a level of discomfort that stuns people into silence, we need to be there to see that.”

Watching and listening is a big part of the creative process.

David explains: “The first time we met with Gerry Lane we sat and listened to him for three hours. That gets you the nuggets of information that you might not otherwise get. We heard him speaking at a conference some time earlier and we knew this was a man with a story to tell and who could do it very well.”

David adds: “Gerry had worked in Belfast at the Mater Hospital, in the Middle East and in London and therefore had very wide experience. His current job at Letterkenny was particularly relevant given the frightening risk of being involved in a car crash in Donegal.” (This comment came before the horrific death toll of the Twelfth weekend in Buncrana).

“We made two advertisements with him. He is a man who has so much to give and who thinks very deeply about what he is doing.”

But it is not just medical experts who are consulted. The PSNI and the gardai, other emergency services and the relatives of those who have been killed in road crashes are also asked for their input or even to appear in advertisements.

“It is humbling to see people who have lost a son or daughter or other family member being prepared to go on television which will be seen in every home in Ireland and to tell their stories.

“You would think that you could never do that, but tragedy does something very profound to people.”

One of the great ironies of the road safety campaign was the tragic accident involving Phoebe, the young daughter of David’s brother, Robert, who is also involved in making the advertisements.

Aged just three she was left paralysed after being hit by a motorist while on holiday in Spain in 2001. She lay in a deep coma for weeks.

“That, of course, brought it home to all of us how lifetime changes can occur as a result of a tragedy on the road. We never talk about Phoebe in our professional lives out of respect to Robert and the privacy of his family. However, she is a wonderful character.

“Both Julie Anne and I have a number of friends who are in wheelchairs as a result of road tragedies and we have featured wheelchairs in our advertisements.

“We have to be careful not to imply that life is over just because someone is in a wheelchair. People in wheelchairs deserve their dignity. A friend of Julie Anne’s who has been in a wheelchair since the age of 17 when he came off a motorcycle acts as a consultant on wheelchair issues for us.

“We try to portray everything as accurately as possible. We ask medical professionals, for example, how much blood would come from certain types of injury.

“We have also interviewed people who were badly scarred so that we could have actors respond correctly to permanent injuries.”

Some of the advertisements can be very expensive to make, costing £250,000-plus to make. Stunts like the car careering into a garden require the technical input of stunt coordinators brought in from London — one of the stunt men previously appeared in the opening credits of the 1995 James Bond movie, GoldenEye.

And the stunts don’t always go exactly as planned.

“On one occasion a car continued to tumble much further than expected and the camera crew had to run for their lives,” David recalls.

The continuous search for authenticity is important, Julie Anne says. “We are very conscious that it is a matter of life and death. If we get the messages wrong, people could die. If we get it right, then lives can be saved.”

One phrase David refuses to use is ‘road accident’.

“It is a cop-out that only guilty drivers use. Some 95% of so-called road accidents are due to human error.

“Factors include drinking and driving, not paying attention, driving too fast — these are the things that kill people and they are not accidental.”

He has interviewed people who have been jailed for killing people in road crashes. “Most of them would do anything to turn back the clock.

“Some, on their release, have wanted to do something to spread the road safety message. They want to tell their stories in the hope that it will save lives.”

The work of the Belfast agency has found acclaim abroad, winning 248 creative awards and 39 effectiveness accolades, including the global David Ogilvy Gold in New York for its cross-border seat belts campaign, which helped push Northern Ireland from the region of the UK with the lowest compliance to the highest ranking.

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