My occasional Hulu habit has brought me in contact with a series of anti-reckless driving ads aimed at teens. They’re actually kinda clever—a game-show host magically appears in a careening car, offering the most fabulous prize of all (continued life). All the commercial’s protagonist has to do is tell his dumb-dumb pals to slow down—a square deal, if I’ve ever heard one, and an indisputably noble cause.
But will it save any lives? For that matter, do public service announcements have any demonstrable effect on population-wide behavior? There are oodles of peer-reviewed studies, but they all seem flawed to me—perhaps unavoidably. For starters, all of the most recent studies have tended to focus on either anti-drinking/drug or anti-AIDS messages, so there really isn’t much data pertaining to, say, PSAs that inveigh against absentee fathers. More importantly, the researchers can do little except ask ad watchers to report their reactions. Not too surprisingly, seeing an ad on the consequences of AIDS will make you more likely to stock up on condoms—but only when you’re in the “recommendation condition” (i.e. just saw the spot). Where’s the follow-up on how these studies’ participants fared months or years after the fact?
My hunch is that the best PSAs are ones that sear a particularly troubling image in your mind. Tough to get more searing than this Canadian classic. (WARNING: Not for the faint of heart. Seriously, I’m not kidding. The Canadians don’t mess around.)