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  • David Meikle

Advertising, road accidents and accountability

Winston Churchill once noted:

“Where there is great power there is great responsibility, where there is less power there is less responsibility, and where there is no power there can, I think, be no responsibility.”

Difficult to argue his point. And it’s a natural human response to an environment of high control. By way of illustration there is the story of Hans Monderman, a Dutch road traffic engineer, perhaps not the most likely role to inform the marketing world but, nonetheless, bear with me …

Monderman was responsible for a road safety concept called Shared Space. With an understandably cautious beginning, the idea was to reduce traffic controls in the interests of improving driver and pedestrian safety.

You may need to read that last sentence again – I did.

Drachten, a town in Holland, was a pioneer of the concept. Drachten has a population of approximately 50,000 people and had a total of 15 sets of traffic lights. On average, the town suffered from one road accident fatality every three years, but after removing 12 of the 15 sets of lights, at the time of reporting there had been no road deaths for seven years. According to Monderman, there had been a few small collisions, but they were almost encouraged, insofar as minor accidents in which nobody is hurt are far preferable to large ones that result in injury or even death.

As counterintuitive as the initiative may seem at first, when you consider the position of a driver approaching a junction with no traffic lights, they will slow down, take responsibility for themselves and their vehicle, and be cautious about the behaviour of others.

Instead of devolving responsibility for road safety to the traffic lights, drivers assumed the responsibility themselves. Monderman said:

“Essentially, what it means is a transfer of power and responsibility from the state to the individual and the community.”

The initiative was so successful, it was developed further as a concept that was then implemented in many countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Sweden, Switzerland and Germany. As Monderman himself stated, succinctly:

“When you treat people like idiots, they’ll behave like idiots.”

Now consider the process client and agencies employ in the development of advertising.

Over the last 25 years when I’ve been in the advertising business, controls and KPIs for agencies have been on the increase. There was a time when certain kinds of proposition or creative research were employed only if there was doubt, but now there is almost always an assumed burden of proof at every step. While this provides some reassurance for the millions of pounds or dollars that might be invested behind a campaign, the level of control exerted on the agency has an effect on the outcome.

As Bill Bernbach, founder of DDB observed:

“We are so busy measuring public opinion that we forget we can mold it. We are so busy listening to statistics we forget we can create them.”

… and that was in the 60s.

Bernbach also proposed that

“Rules are what the artist breaks; the memorable never emerged from a formula."

How to Buy a Gorilla, released this Thursday June 29th by LID Publishing, tackles these almost paradoxical challenges head on for better advertising with better returns.

David Meikle

Author and Founder How to Buy a Gorilla.

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