Friday, December 17, 2010

Too Many Ideas Syndrome: A Critique of Washington’s Slow Down or Pay Up Media Campaign– Lauren VanDixhorn

Motor vehicle accidents are a leading cause of morbidity and mortality in the United States. Speeding is a major contributor to many of those accidents. In recognition of the dangerous ramifications of speeding, in April of this year the Washington State Traffic Commission launched a new program, Target Zero, aimed at eliminating traffic accidents resulting in death and serious injury by 2030. The program includes many meaningful elements, such as increasing police patrols and educational classes; however, a key component of the project, the Slow Down or Pay Up media campaign does not produce an intervention consistent with the program’s goals. The commercial touches on components of several behavioral science models: the Health Belief Model, the Social Cognitive Theory, and Advertising Theory. While elements of these theories could potentially supplement each other, the current advertisement includes them in a shallow manner that ultimately undermines the power of the commercial’s message, rendering it ineffective. Since the media element is so crucial to the Target Zero project, refocusing the Slow Down or Pay Up ad is essential to achieving programmatic success.

Problem I: Inappropriate Focus

The Slow Down or Pay Up media campaign revolves around one advertising concept: the depiction of a speeding driver causing a (presumably) fatal car accident. The fact that the commercial highlights the severe health consequences of speeding suggests that the creators were attempting to invoke the Health Belief Model in their campaign. The creators failed, however, to address other key tenets of the theory and thus, their effort falls short.

The Health Belief Model rests upon four key pillars: perceived susceptibility, perceived severity, perceived benefits, and perceived barriers (2-2). Susceptibility is often described as the person’s perceived risk of experiencing the outcome. The severity is the perceived seriousness of the consequences of that outcome. Benefits and barriers describe the perceived positive and negative outcomes that result from complying with the requested action. In theory, these four components, when taken together, determine whether or not a person will adopt the action in question.

This model thus defines behavior change as the outcome of the cost-benefit analysis of these four factors. In this sense, asking people to change their normal behavior requires that they participate in this type of calculation. Ultimately, “the direction the action is taken is thought to be influenced by beliefs about the relative effectiveness of available alternatives relative to beliefs about the negative aspects of health actions…that serve as barriers to action” (2-82). In other words, in order to persuade people to change their behavior, public health practitioners must convince them that changing their habits will result in a more favorable cost-benefit analysis than their old ways. It therefore becomes vitally important to incorporate all four elements of the Health Belief Model into the intervention. If those elements are not included, the argument for changing behavior does not possess the necessary firepower to compete with established behaviors.

The creators of the Slow Down or Pay Up campaign are guilty of committing that very mistake. The ad begins with fast-paced music and a car driving along a winding road. The car passes by a speed limit sign. The camera then flashes to the speedometer—the driver is speeding. Then, in a stern, no-nonsense voice, the narrator proclaims, “85% of speeding drivers in fatal crashes were men who thought speed limit signs were meant for other people…they were dead wrong” (3). The car promptly crashes and, based on the voiceover, the driver presumably dies. There are many reasons why the composition of this commercial is ineffective, but in terms of the Health Belief Model, that problem can be summed up in two words: inappropriate focus. This commercial only really addresses one of the four important pillars. The entire purpose of the commercial is clearly to highlight severity. Neither benefits nor barriers are ever seriously discussed. Inferences can perhaps be made. For example, a benefit of not speeding in this commercial would be not dying, but those inferences are never clearly stated and are thus abstract at best. Additionally, the commercial actually limits perceived susceptibility by including the statistic about men. Anyone who does not identify as a man can immediately tune this out. These omissions certainly undermine the advertisement’s effectiveness.

Although every element of the Health Belief Model should be mentioned within the intervention, it is permissible to highlight one over the others. Unfortunately, the creators of this commercial focused on severity at the expense of the other three elements of the Health Belief Model. In multiple studies, researchers have found that, “perceived barriers’ proved to be the most powerful of the HBM dimensions…’perceived susceptibility’ was a strong contributor…’perceived severity’ produced the lowest overall significance” (4-1). By itself, perceived severity is not sufficient evidence to inspire behavior change. By centering their commercial on severity, the creators of this ad severely weakened the framework of their intervention.

Problem II: Ambiguous Messages

In addition to their half-hearted use of the Health Belief Model, the creators of the Slow Down or Pay Up campaign also misused the Social Cognitive Theory in their ad. The creators of the commercial attempted to inject social expectations into the commercial in order to apply the Social Cognitive Model. Those attempts, however, are not executed in a way that promotes the overall theme of the commercial. On the contrary, the creators’ attempts at using the Social Cognitive Theory actually contradict the message they are trying to promote.

The Social Cognitive Theory posits that people learn through the observation of others. The “core determinants include knowledge of health risks and benefits…perceived self-efficacy that one can exercise control over one’s health habits, outcome expectations…and the perceived facilitators and social and structural impediments to the change they seek” (5-144). People’s behavior is not only influenced by their self-perceived risks and benefits, but also their confidence in their ability to perform the action and social expectations.

Like the Health Belief Model, all aspects of the theory should be addressed within an intervention, although ultimately some are more influential than others when attempting to inspire behavioral change. In fact, “self efficacy is a focal determinant because…efficacy beliefs influence goals and aspirations. The stronger the perceived self efficacy, the higher the goals people set for themselves and the firmer their commitment to them” (5-144). Ignoring self efficacy greatly hinders the ability of an intervention to motivate people—this ad does not address the concept at all. Additionally, social expectations are extremely important because “behavior is partly regulated by the social reactions it evokes” (5-144). This theory posits that people are by nature social beings. The expectations set by peers are another extremely important determinant of action.

Since social expectations are so influential, it is important to clearly illustrate what those expectations are. “Many behaviors are surrounded by a considerable degree of normative ambiguity…To be successful in reducing people’s involvement in risky health behaviors, society must first remove much of the normative ambiguity that surrounds them by clarifying and reinforcing social values and norms” (6-201). If the goal is to encourage people to change behavior with social expectations, it is vital that those beliefs are explicitly clear.

The Slow Down or Pay Up campaign fails at creating this cohesive message. The creators tried to inject social expectations by using text printed on speed limit signs throughout the commercial. As the driver is progressing down the road, he passes a speed limit sign. The camera zooms in, and text at the bottom of the sign reads, “this means you, buddy” (3). He continues down the road, seemingly undeterred. He passes another sign-the speed limit is slightly lower. This time it reads, “yes, really” (3). Again, he pays no attention. Finally, he succumbs to what appears to be a fatal crash. The voiceover delivers the punch line: “they were dead wrong” as the camera pans to a final speed limit sign which reads, “told you so” (3). The use of the speed limit signs is an attempt to inject social norms into the commercial but ultimately serves to confuse the intention of the ad’s message. Presumably, the creators of the commercial are trying to combat the perception that speed limits are a joke. They attempt to do this through the visual images of the car crash. However, their use of the speed limit signs does not reinforce this idea. On the contrary, the use of the signs reinforces the very idea the creators are trying to quell. The signs are sarcastic; they convert a serious crash into a joke. They do not match the intended message of the commercial. This ambiguity not only conflicts with the Social Cognitive Theory, but also contradicts the efforts made as part of the Health Belief Model.

Problem III: Inappropriate Support

While the content of the message may derive from other social behavioral science models, the Slow Down or Pay Up campaign was ultimately envisioned as a media campaign. Thus, it is only appropriate to examine the commercial through the lens of Advertising Theory. Just as they did with the other models, the creators of this campaign misapplied the tenets of the theory in their finished product.

Advertising is really the art of persuasion. In the commercial realm, advertising involves persuading people to give up their possessions, typically money, in exchange for whatever product is being sold. In public health, the concept is similar. The purpose of advertising is to persuade the consumer to forego their routine in favor of the action being promoted. Advertising Theory provides tools as to how to accomplish that goal.

Advertising in public health is particularly difficult because we are often asking people to change their normal behaviors. “Any advertisement has a very difficult task if it is to capture the perception of a consumer and an even harder time, once perceived, to make a net addition to what the consumer already knows” (7-235). Advertising is a two-step process: first, you need to grab the attention of the viewer; second, you must convince them that what you are saying is worth committing to memory. In the case of speeding, a public health professional must first concentrate on catching the public’s attention. Once they have that, they must present their ideas in a memorable way.

Of the two steps, the second is clearly the most challenging. In a media-crazed society, getting attention is not incredibly difficult. Retaining attention, on the other hand, can be quite difficult. According to Advertising Theory, the way to capture an audience is through the use of promises and support. In the introductory scenes, the advertisement should make a promise to the viewer. The rest of the commercial should be dedicated to illustrating why that promise is believable. In terms of the type of support, “consumers form their preference on the basis of elements such as liking, feelings, and emotion induced by the advertisement or familiarity triggered by more exposure to the advertisement, rather than product/brand attribute information” (8-29). According to this theory, using statistics or factual information is not the most effective means of support. Relatable images and emotional triggers are by far more effective at persuading the audience to not only pay attention but also take the message to heart.

Remembering the message is paramount to eventually inspiring behavioral change. According to the theory, “the extent to which we remember a new experience has more to do with how it relates to existing memories than with how many times or how recently we have experienced it” (9-96). In other words, it is not necessary to limit potential support to events or images that occur on a daily basis. Supporting evidence just has to be relatable to the viewer. In this way, “advertising and sponsored marketing communications must be created in the context of whatever consumers now know and think” (7-237). Successful advertisements cannot simply ignore current context. In order to change those perceptions, the ad must address the current beliefs and demonstrate why they should be amended. Simply ignoring the status quo is not effective.

The Slow Down or Pay Up campaign is not an effective demonstration of the Advertising Theory. It appears as though the commercial revolves around the general promise that if drivers engage in speeding, they will die. This premise is in contrast to the widely held opinion that speeding is an acceptable practice. But, the commercial never addresses that current opinion in a serious way. It makes reference to current norms through cheeky road signs, but as mentioned previously, that cannot be considered in a meaningful way. Also, in order to support their promise, the creators rely on statistics. “85% of speeding drivers in fatal crashes were men who thought speed limit signs were meant for other people…they were dead wrong” (3). The use of statistics is not only less convincing than emotional images, but also limits the application of this commercial. The inferred new promise is that only men will die from speeding. Women, children, and teens are free to speed as they please. Obviously, this is not the message the creators intended. In one final effort to undermine their own intervention, the creators chose background music that contrasts their intent. The music is fast-paced, techno music. The heavy, fast beats do not coincide with a message of slowing down. If anything, the music raising heart rates and is reminiscent of a race.

Slow Down or Pay Up: A New Approach

The current Slow Down or Pay Up commercial is not an effective intervention. Its attempts to incorporate three separate behavioral science theories are disjointed and counterproductive. Addressing this problem is essential because this media project is vital to the overall success of Washington’s Target Zero program. A new advertisement could potentially include all three theories that the initial ad intended; however, it must do so in a much more cohesive manner. The campaign would include a series of ads that are identical in format. They would begin with a black screen inscribed with the name of a speeding crash victim. Beneath the name are two dates: their date of birth and the date of the accident. For some, this would be the date of death. For others, it would be the date of serious injury. From there, the screen would transition to an interview with either the incapacitated victim or the surviving family members. The interviewee would relay their story and the commercial would conclude with a final parting image: crosses by the roadside, a wheelchair, something to remind the viewer what was lost. As the commercial ends, the words “Slow Down or Pay Up,” which have now taken on a human rather than financial context, appear on the screen.

Solution I: Reframe the Context

This new commercial format provides the opportunity to correct the errors made in the original commercial. In the old commercial, the format was very limited. The scene choice and lack of dialogue only enabled the creators to highlight the severity of speeding accidents. Neglecting the other three elements of the Health Belief Model ultimately weakened the message.

In contrast, this new format enables the commercial to seamlessly incorporate all tenets of the Health Belief Model. The use of several different story lines increases perceived susceptibility. The majority of speeding crashes occur amongst younger drivers. Within that demographic, “we find a clear separation of condition-specific and general measures of perceived susceptibility…hence researchers should carefully consider the age of the study population” (2-91). Younger people require a context directly applicable to themselves in order for it to be meaningful. Incorporating testimonies from within that group achieves that goal. Severity is clearly demonstrated through the stories as well. Benefits and barriers could also be addressed in a single line of the interview: “if I/they had done something as simple as driving the speed limit, I/they would not be paralyzed/dead.” By changing the storyboard, this new intervention is able to comprehensively address the Health Belief Model without bombarding the viewer with conflicting images.

Not only is this new format capable of giving voice to all four legs of the Health Belief Model, it also highlights the elements that are particularly influential on decision making. Personal testimonies are more relatable and can be generalized to a wider sample of the population. This greatly enhances the commercial’s impact on perceived susceptibility while reminding the viewer of the potential severity of the consequences of speeding. The “combined levels of susceptibility and severity provided the energy or force to act and the perception of benefits provided a preferred path of action” (4-2). There is no ambiguity with this format. The testimony and text clearly illuminate which health behavior is incorrect, why it is wrong, and an easy alternative to engage in instead. This simple format is clear, concise, more thorough, and illuminates a desirable course of action for the viewer to follow.

Solution II: Create a Cohesive Message

This new format would also enhance the contribution of the Social Cognitive Theory to this intervention. Within this theory, there are “four possible mechanisms through which health communications could alter health habits: by transmitting information on how habits affect health, by arousing fear of disease, by increasing perception of one’s personal vulnerability, or by raising people’s beliefs in their efficacy to alter their habits” (5-148). The old commercial did not seriously arouse a fear of speeding, create a universal sense of vulnerability, or address self efficacy. In fact, the only way in which the old commercial used the Social Cognitive Theory was through the injection of social expectations in a joking manner.

This new format would speak to each of these ideas and improve the erroneous attempts already in place. The use of real-life stories augments potential of the commercial to influence change. This is important because “representations of risky behavior may contribute to this process by influencing people’s perceptions of social expectations” (6-212). Including the stories supplements the message promoted in the Health Belief Model. It also addressed the four pathways discussed in this theory: health effects of the exposure, vulnerability, fear of the outcome, and self-efficacy.

The testimonies also provide viewers with real-life cautionary tales regarding speeding. This is significant because peoples’ “motivation is enhanced by helping people to see how habit changes are in their self-interest and the broader goals they value highly” (5-144). Depicting true stories rather than contrived stunt-course shots more obviously illustrates speeding’s potential harm and its clear conflict with the valued goal of a healthy life. Hearing victims say outright that they wish they had not sped coupled with the overarching theme that speeding is not socially acceptable creates stigma associated with speeding and portrays it as socially undesirable. The combination of these efforts creates a strong anti-speeding message that not only reaches the viewer through a personal, self-preservation standpoint, but also through the pressures of social norms.

Solution III: Improve the Support

The final effort to improve the current Slow Down or Pay Up campaign should be an attempt to better comply with Advertising Theory. In the current commercial, the creators relied on a single advertisement concept that did not adequately disprove current perceptions. They also mistakenly use statistics to provide support for their argument and create a fast-paced tone associated with speeding through their choice of background music. Each of these elements serves to undermine the message the creators are trying to convey. This new commercial format will address all of these problems.

The first and most immediate change would occur within the advertising plan itself. Rather than relying on one integral advertisement, this new concept would be comprised of a series of different story lines. This change is significant because “recall and attitudes can be maintained at a high level if an advertising campaign consists of a series of advertisements” (8-31). By incorporating a variety of commercials, this campaign becomes more effective. Using a variety of stories is more memorable. Each time a new ad is shown, it has the benefit of appearing novel. Viewers are more likely to pay attention to subsequent ads if they have not seen that identical rendition numerous times.

The content of the ad itself will also provide more meaningful support for the promise that speeding will result in serious car accidents. Using a multitude of testimonies recounting the same message can help dispel current beliefs. A single line such as, “I/they thought speeding was harmless” directly combats current beliefs and seamlessly fits within the overarching themes of the intervention. Additionally, the current inclusion of statistics and fast-paced music would be eliminated. All of that information is unnecessary and counterproductive. “Advertising need not be informative to be effective, nor need be verbal only; emotional and visual elements enhance preference” (8-30). Often times in advertisements, statistics and factual information are not the best tools. Including real stories of personal loss and emotional images suggesting death or permanent injury are much more effective and will thus replace the contents of the original ad. These new images are more relatable, directly counter established beliefs, and arouse a much greater level of connection between the viewer and the message. Changing the music to a slow-paced tune reminiscent of a funeral will help retain a cohesive theme within the commercial. Unlike the current music, which actually reminds the viewer of speeding, this new music will serve as a subliminal reminder of the potential consequences of speeding. In combination with other elements of the ad, this revamped format may have less production value, but it certainly has more power.


Launched by the Washington State Traffic Commission as the key media component of their Target Zero project, the Slow Down or Speed Up campaign is currently an ineffective intervention. As it stands, the current intervention lacks focus. The creators of the campaign attempted to incorporate several different theories using an outdated and ineffective advertising plan. The limitations of the current plan made it nearly impossible to incorporate all of the elements of proposed models. Rather than narrowing the theoretical focus or changing the commercial’s concept, the creators chose to pick elements from each theory and include them in the intervention. The result is a disjointed message that is not only weak in terms of its persuasive properties, but also contradicts itself and the very message the creators were trying to promote.

A new, more effective intervention would adopt a completely different advertising concept. By adopting this simpler approach, the intervention could accommodate all crucial elements of the Health Belief Model, Social Cognitive Theory, and Advertising Theory without bombarding the viewer with ambiguous or contradictory statements. By streamlining the advertisement, incorporating a variety of personal elements, and paying close attention to details such as background music, the new Slow Down or Pay Up campaign commands more attention and becomes more memorable, more persuasive, and a much more effective agent of change for Washington’s Target Zero program.


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