Shocking PSAs are not always warranted

September 17, 2009

Shocking PSAs are not always warranted

Are authorities and government supposed to stand by idly while people practice unsafe behaviors that could cost them their lives, and injure or kill innocents who happen to cross their paths? Perhaps the right answer relates to the matter of degree of the transgression.

In the case of cell phone use while driving (a behavior shown to quadruple the risk of crashes) and especially texting while driving (a 23 times greater risk), the graphic public service announcement from the United Kingdom’s Department for Transport ( is vivid, riveting and persuasive.  The video lasts more than 4 minutes and shows a crushing head-on accident unfold due to a teen’s inattentiveness at the wheel. Close-ups show blood, critical injuries and needless suffering.  It’s graphic, but if you know any ‘invincible’ teenagers, you understand it can take bluntness to have a message sink in.

Robert Sinclair of the Automobile Club of New York told CNN upon the PSA’s release that it is “hard-hitting. That’s the reality of the situation.” In the U.S., car crashes are the #1 cause of death in people up to age 44, and our country has “very poor driver training” relative to the rest of the world, he added.  The Utah Department of Transportation has produced its own video on texting and driving to make people aware this behavior is illegal in the state.  New York is poised to pass a similar law.

Commercials that make people cringe in the United States are the anti-tobacco ads from the New York State Department of Health that depict chronically ill patients in hospital settings and doctors’ offices. Their purpose is to keep young people from smoking and persuading current smokers to stop. These too show the potential consequences of a behavior linked to heart disease, cancer and other illnesses. 

There’s also concern over the effect of second-hand smoke on family members in the home of a smoker.

Now comes a subway poster campaign from New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that targets consumption of sugary beverages. “Are you pouring on the pounds? Don’t drink yourself fat,” reads the ad, which is one weapon in the city’s war on obesity. 

Since drinking soda is nowhere on the danger scale of, say, smoking, is such shock treatment warranted or is it overkill? Kevin Keane of the American Beverage Association provided a statement to The New York Times: “The ad campaign is over the top and unfortunately is going to undermine meaningful efforts to educate people about how to maintain a healthy weight by balancing calories consumed from all foods and beverages with calories burned through exercise.”

Never mind who pays his salary. He has a point. There’s enough confusion about the proper way to eat—witness our national obesity. A supermarket carries hundreds of foods that could just as easily be singled out; the fact is abstinence isn’t the only answer.

Entities that want their messages to continue to be heard and seen as credible need to exercise restraint before utilizing shocking ads—or they’ll lack impact when they’re really needed.