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Only shocking tactics can cut road carnage

It's not exactly Madison Avenue - a bare back room in a border town, the rain pelting against the window and the splash of lorries hurtling past as a group of young men grab a sandwich and take a seat at a makeshift table.

A focus group in action. This is the real world of advertising - not the stuff from the movies. Glamorous it ain't.

So here I am, observing a gathering of regular people and my job is to listen to what they have to say about road safety and about the advertising we spend our lives creating.

The sheer ordinariness of it all may seem a touch underwhelming until someone starts to articulate, with searing accuracy and insight, their interpretation of a visual cue from one of the anti-drink-drive ads, "the one where the flower gets sliced in half and you know that means the wee boy is dead".

A scene which lasts for 14 frames - just over half a second - has been embedded in the emotional memory of a young driver and he has dissected its meaning as fast as the car came crashing through the fence into the garden. (We're still astounded at how often crashed cars end up in people's gardens.)

In a heartbeat I am reminded that the real test of advertising is how it resonates with the ordinary punter, as opposed to the professional pundit whose pen sometimes doesn't dig deep enough.

Real people know what works and what doesn't, which is why we have listened to 207,486 of them across the island of Ireland - in their homes, in hospitals, in pubs, in prisons, in anger, in pain and in sorrow - and in scores of focus groups like this one, talking about how they feel and what moves them enough to change their attitudes and behaviours on the roads.

It is they who help shape creative strategies and the iconic advertising which has helped produce the lowest death-toll on Ireland's roads since records began. The road safety advertising is the most meticulously tested advertising in Ireland. In fact, it is tested to within an inch of its life.

It is tested at concept stage. It is tested before it goes on air. It is tested when it is on air. And it is tested for wear-out on a regular basis because, when your subject matter is literally a matter of life and death, you can't afford to get it wrong.

If it isn't the best it can possibly be, someone dies. This isn't a Hunky Dory world where a dollop of misplaced humour might mean that the brand is binned by a clutch of crisp-crunching consumers; this is the real world.

One of the most consistent research findings, across two decades, is that real people want reality. Abstraction simply doesn't cut it, nor does the beating-about-the-bush approach.

As a result the ads are deliberately shocking, often uncomfortably so, yet, overwhelmingly, those families hit hardest by road tragedy tell us that if they save just one other family from going through the pain they endure, then they are absolutely essential.

And yes, a minority of viewers switch over, but not until they have been switched on by the message. In many cases, it takes just a few beats of music for them to recall the ad in its entirety. Indeed, it now seems that things are changing in other parts of the world when it comes to road safety advertising. There is a demand for this shocking approach and, as a result, we have adapted a number of ads to run in other countries after receiving a clamour of requests to show them in Italy, Austria, Israel, Greece, South Africa and elsewhere.

Shock is not an easy option. If it isn't handled sensitively it can misfire and alienate people. As part of intelligent, carefully constructed narrative however, it can be highly effective, stamping an indelible mark on the memory.

There are many different ways to manage shock. There is the brutal shock as the boy's head hits the tarmac when he is struck by the van as he steps off the kerb while texting.

There is the psychological shock of discovering that innocent love will turn to brain-damage when the boyfriend travels in the back unbelted, but there is also a much quieter shock at work when the A&E consultant tells us that "It's the cleaning ladies who have to scrub the blood off the floor and pick up the pieces" or when parents who have lost their sons or daughters on the road describe how their lives too have come crashing down.

Shock shouldn't always be shouted. Sometimes it is the silences that speak volumes.

The outcome is that testing pays dividends. The DoE's TV ads repeatedly achieve peak scores for awareness and influence which are far higher than industry averages - often exceeding 90% for both. The evidence is clear. Attitudes and behaviours have improved significantly - and the DoE's advertising, alongside enforcement, has had a major impact in reducing road death and serious injury.

For instance, the DoE's shocking seatbelts campaign took Northern Ireland's seatbelt-wearing rates from the worst in the UK to the highest, saving 310 people from death or serious injury.

Which is why the ultimate test in advertising is what works - in the real world.