Effective Road Safety Campaign using the Shame Appeal

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Effective Road Safety Campaign using the Shame Appeal

For years, the NSW Roads and Transport Authority (RTA) used shock and fear-based campaigns, which have had inconclusive effectiveness in reducing actual rates of accidents. Then the No one thinks big of you (the pinkie campaign) came and broke the mould.

Breaking the mould: No one thinks big of you

The RTA website eloquently describes the pinkie heuristic as meaning, “slow down and stop acting recklessly”. To be more candid, most people recognise it as a symbol identifying the compensatory actions of a man with a small penis.

Academically speaking, it uses the Theory of Planned Behaviour to focus on a key disjuncture between protagonists’ beliefs about the consequences of their anti-social road behaviour and the normative beliefs held by significant referents.

It then uses shame to motivate compliance with the social norm. Studies of the use of fear, guilt and shame appeals have found that “shame is particularly effective in advertising directed at young people” (2010). They also find that of the three, it is shame, that “leads to conformance to social norms”.

Deconstructing the campaign

The 45-second television advertisement, which is the primary medium, uses three parallel stories of young men in their cars performing anti-social behaviour in front of three different sets of referents.

The power of the pinkie symbol is in part its ability to tap into a collectively well-understood concept. That message is able to be communicated throughout the campaign without words, leaving audio space for a music track to instil the emotional/psychological elements to the message.

The use of the pinkie symbol is also powerful because of its uniqueness. It is not a gesture involving thumbs up or thumbs down, it doesn’t use the ubiquitous symbol made by forming the index finger and thumb into a ring, nor a wiggling index finger, ring finger, or middle finger, any of which could result in audience confusion. Those other symbols are used to communicate various messages depending on their context.

The wiggling pinkie cannot be confused with anything other than what is signified in the advertisement. Therefore, it serves as an effective symbolic shorthand  – particularly for the youth culture to whom it’s targeted – to a universally understood principle without actually having to be explicit and possibly offend viewers.

Even to a viewer who may not have seen the gesture before, the meaning can be derived from context and other visual clues, such as the tagline at the end. The ability of the viewer to ‘close the gap’ set up by the ad and make the connection themselves, makes consuming the advertisement rewarding for the viewer and is a technique commonly observable in good advertising copywriting to increase audience engagement.

The Filmic Advertisement

The opening shot is of a lime-green sedan rolling along a nondescript industrial street. The driver and his male passenger are moving slowly and come to stop at a red traffic light at a logo-less, beige pub in front of which two attractive girls, about their age, are standing. They exchange flirtatious glances with the driver, indicating some level of sexual interest. The soundtrack is a romantic mood piece by composer Hylton Mowday reminiscent of a bygone era, which reinforces the traditional boy-meets-girl(s) set-up.

The driver smirks and squeezes the steering wheel and the lights change to green. You can see the opportunity on his face. This is his moment to demonstrate prowess. He rocks his head and body back and forward, lunging his tongue from his mouth and smoking his tyres, all symbolising sexual energy, and takes off in a cloud of smoke which wafts over the young women. Satisfied with his performance, he smiles. The girls exchange disapproving glances, then half-smiles as they share the pinkie symbol.

A professional woman in high heels and a white shirt embarks on a pedestrian crossing but must step back to allow a young male driver to enforce the right of way. His smirks, enjoying his sense of control and power but avoids any eye contact with her. Her response is not anger, but an exasperated look of tiresome irritation. She has clearly seen this many times before. The incident is witnessed by a senior female at a bus seat. Nor does she express any anger or irritation, but shares a distinctively blank look of disapproval. It’s nothing new to her – she has probably been seeing this for decades. It is she who shows the pinkie in response.

As referents, these two groups most likely do not constitute significant referents to the target. As Brennan and Binney (2010) find in their research about shame, fear and guilt appeals in social marketing, “only if I admired their opinions and if it was somebody I have high regard for would I care” (spoken by Female, 75+).

However, the purpose of this scene is to universalise the normative belief about this kind of behaviour. The message is clear. It isn’t just a certain age group, everyone will see you as a loser.

In the third scene, four young men, around 17-18 years old (judging by the P-plate on the blue sedan) are driving around a corner past the same pub in scene one. The bend is deliberately taken too sharply and the passengers in the backseat lurch to the sides.

The driver who has the large doe-eyed appearance of an innocent and impressionable youth manoeuvres the car in a series of smoky skids before the car stabilises normally. Thus, he has demonstrated his skill and control and smiles with satisfaction. Looking in the rearview mirror for his approving reward from the backseat, he catches a surreptitious pinkie gesture exchanged by his two passengers. The passenger who makes the gesture is good-looking and muscular.

Seeing that there is no positive reinforcement, but rather the unwanted humiliation from his peers, the penny drops. For the first time, this driver sees that his actions have achieved the opposite of what he has clearly intended and expected. This reference group is more significant to him than the young girls or the older women who represent society generally. As one respondent claimed during the campaign research,

“At this age, you are extremely aware of being teased… the thought of being ribbed by your mates is much more relevant than the thought of crashing your car…”

(Male aged between 17-25).

And another male of same target age category:

“I think this is genius… it’s the first time the RTA hasn’t run a fear campaign… this is something that is relevant to our situation… we respond to emotion in that particular way… we don’t respond to fear tactics.”

(Get the classic book that inspired Mad Men, David Ogilvy’s On Advertising in the Digital Age)

Campaign Autopsy – How it Works in Theory

Who is to blame for this in the first place?

In all of these incidences, the target audience / male drivers demonstrate an expectation of the ability to impress others using the car to demonstrate their skill, control and manliness. Or, it could simply be a lack of impulse inhibition. We can learn some interesting things about this target if we use a basic tri-component model to look at the construction of this attitude.

MEDIA and CULTURE: (cognitive aspects) of this belief could have been informed by things such as motor racing, video games, music videos, and films that appeal to this target audience – from yesterday’s Grease to today’s Fast and the Furious. Across these forms of entertainment, the messages are fairly consistent. The fastest conquers. The fastest stands on the podium. The fastest wins the girl and his heroism wins the admiration of his peers.

NEUROLOGICAL DIMENSIONS : (Affective/conative aspect) is the feeling of power, control and virility the young male feels when he gives his car a good workout. There may also be an adrenaline rush as the behaviour is risky. This risk element is an interesting component that psychologists and neurologists have looked into extensively.

Researchers from psychological disciplines regard this age group as lacking fully matured executive functions of the brain (frontal lobes) and excessive dopamine production. For example, Evanden found that “novelty seeking is related to activity in the “dopaminergic ‘reward system’” (1999).

Wallis & Dell (2004) say, “Dopamine, the brain chemical involved in motivation and in reinforcing behaviour, is particularly abundant and active in the teen years.” These pair conclude that,

“the brain regions that put the brakes on risky, impulsive behaviour are still under construction.”

That said, it is fair to say that: factual and rational tactics in ads are not likely to work for this target as the reasoning skills of adults are underdeveloped, and that the risk-taking behaviour in itself is positive reinforcement.

Given that conundrum for the marketers – the absence of reason or risk as compelling factors – and the hotbed of sexual energy and unbridled hormones, using the shame appeal finds a real gap in the armour. If Maslow was correct in identifying a “self-esteem need” (Kotler, 2002), it takes a direct hit in this campaign.

In this campaign, these affective/conative aspects appear very important to the young men depicted and are encoded in the campaign’s art direction. In bleak, beige Carrington (Newcastle), a partly industrial streetscape, any sign of stimulating shops, signs, and colours have been removed.

In the monochromatic colouring, blandness and boredom seep through. The same brown and blue pub is featured in two scenes, a tacit link to alcohol at the periphery. We can also see smokestacks and shipping crates in the background, emblematic of low socio-economic areas and limited opportunity. These guys do not have much to do. Of course, satisfaction, a sense of power, control, stimulation, attractiveness – take priority in this landscape.

Effectiveness of the campaign

The RTA states that audience testing was undertaken “at three stages of the campaign including initial concepts, refinement of concepts and offline edit versions.”

The audience feedback was described as “overwhelmingly positive” without exception.

After nine weeks of screening in cinemas and televisions, TNS Social Research evaluated its impact and effectiveness and found: “seven out of ten respondents among the general population recalled elements of the campaign, compared to 67% of young males. They also described this finding as “higher than has been seen for any other recent RTA campaigns, indicating that the television commercial has successfully cut through into the consciousness of TV viewers”.

The research also found that 71% of the general population and 70% of target male population believed the commercial would “have some effect in encouraging drivers in general to obey the speed limit”. (RTA Fact Sheet “Evaluating Speeding. No one thinks big of you.)

The campaign also won Clemenger BBDO the Grand Effie Award for outstanding marketing communications. The judges said The Grand EFFIE winner  “drove a real sea change in social attitudes to speeding.” Clemenger BBDO Sydney used an insightful strategy to develop the campaign. The judges said the campaign “saved lives and benefited the state by $264m”.

Improvements to the Campaign

In their best practice recommendations for road safety campaign, Delany et al suggest three components are most useful. These are: using an emotional rather than rational appeal, the “use of a theoretical model and qualitative and quantitative research to inform the development of the campaign message” and “the use of public relations and any unintentional associated publicity”. They claim that this third factor “appears to be more important to the outcome of the campaign to the use of importance” but that the use of both “the use of both public relations and enforcement as supporting activities shows particularly large results” (May 2004).

As the campaign satisfies the first two best practices, it could be enhanced by adding a public relations domain using endorsers relevant to the target market.

For example, no radio is used in the campaign, probably because of its emphasis on visual clues and an implicit message. However, comment by a celebrity or relevant public Australian ‘everyman’ figure such as Dave Hughes, Kyle Sandilands, would both reinforce the message and provide some in-car immediacy. Furthermore, the outdoor executions all feature the same young woman as the referent. Perhaps the strongest referents in the campaign are the male peers. These are closer to the target audience and their approval the most sought after. An additional variation to outdoor using other males and the same message might reinforce the message more powerfully.

Additionally, whilst the campaign is titled Speeding. No one thinks big of you, which is the strapline and presumably Clemenger’s brief, there is little by way of explicit references to speeding. The portrayals more accurately depict anti-social driving behaviour – such as skidding, and burn-outs. Possibly, this confuses the message a little. This minor flaw provides an opportunity for male viewers uncomfortable with the cognitive dissonance to discredit the campaign based on this rational justification. Omitting the word ‘speeding’ might have been more useful.

Whilst the campaign might not entirely debunk the set of cognitive beliefs that contribute to the perceived glory of anti-social driving (this would be beyond the scope of any single campaign), it does interrupt the conative and affective elements by supplanting them with shame. They’re wiggling their pinkies. They think I’m a loser.

Finally, the inclusion of a police campaign targeting anti-social driving will see it be truly successful.


The No one Thinks Big Of You campaign is an extremely clever, original way of viewing the problem of speeding/anti-social driving and has proven more successful in changing attitudes than any other in the recent history of NSW road safety campaigns.

For its brief, the campaign seeks to improve the driving of 17 to 25-year-old males. Eighty-five per cent of drivers involved in fatal speeding crashes are men (RTA, 2010). P-platers, who typically fall into this age category, comprise 41 per cent of speeding infringements over 45 km per hour.

To fulfil its brief, the campaign shuns fear tactics and drills into the underlying attitudes and beliefs that lead to this sort of risky behaviour – before that behaviour graduates into serious accidents.

NSW Road Safety campaigns have been underpinned by an almost endemic commitment to Fear and Shock Appeals. For decades these have shown to be successful, but only partly. The ‘Thinking Kills Driving Skills’ campaign marked a small departure from the Authority’s way of thinking toward a rational-basis argument. Given the timeframe and complexity of the analysis, it is difficult to measure the effectiveness of that or any specific campaigns.

Combining the Theory of Planned Behaviour, the campaign demonstrates that the individual belief male drivers may have about their behaviour is not the normative belief. It then provides a strong motivation to conform via the shame appeal. The campaign is also successful in identifying likely situational factors. They are elegantly dramatised, but at the same time, highly realistic.

The use of the ‘pinkie’ gesture communicates this message like an in-joke at the offender’s expense. Its researchers have successfully penetrated the psyche of its target audience and found a weak point—public sexual humiliation.

It is too early to observe whether it will be effective in changing the driver behaviour of the target male audience (17-25 years). However, it bears the hallmarks of a successful campaign according to social marketing campaign best practice.

The greatest learning that can be derived from No one Thinks Big of You (NOTBOY) in the area of social marketing is the importance of researching what factors precipitate the behaviour. NOTBOY identifies these very well. Rather than resorting to shocking people into submission or using negative reinforcements that do not resonate with the target, carefully researched understanding will illuminate the best course of action.

It seems that there is no template for such social marketing, as every target is different and the rationale for behaviour differs. However, best practices identify (as well as the studies by numerous researchers) show that emotional appeals work better than scientific/rational and that follow-up endeavours such as police and additional public relations activities are the lynchpin between attitude change and behavioural change.


Thanks for reading!

References and Further Reading

Tay (2002) “The effectiveness of enforcement and publicity campaigns on serious crashes involving young male drivers: Are drink driving and speeding similar?”,

Australian Transport Safety Bureau website 

Tay, R (2002) “Exploring the effects of a road safety campaign on the perceptions and intentions of the target and non-target audiences to drink and drive.” Traffic Injury Prevention, 3(3). pp. 195-200

Campaign Brief website, No one thinks big of you.

The Inspiration Room website

Brennan, L & Binney, W (2010) “Fear, Guilt and Shame Appeals in Social Marketing” Journal of Business Research, Vol. 63, no. 2 (Feb 2010), pp. 140-146

Road Transport Authority website

Howarth, N (2003) “Maximising the Road Safety Impact of Advertising” Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Delaney, Lough, Whelan, Cameron (2004). “A Review of Mass Media Campaigns in Road Safety”, Monash University Accident Research Centre.

Global Road Safety Partnership Focus (2002). “Road Safety publicity campaigns”.

RTA campaign launch Media Conference

RTA Fact Sheet: Audience Testing, Speeding statistics, Evaluation.

Stead, Tagg, MacKintosh, Eadie,  (2005) “Development and evaluation of a mass media Theory of Planned Behaviour intervention to reduce speeding”, Health Education Research Vol 20 No 1, Oxford University Press.

Wallis, C & Dell, K (2004) “What Makes Teens Tick?” Time Magazine. Sunday 3 May 2004.

Evenden, J (1999) “Impulsivity: a discussion of clinical and experimental findings”, Journal of Psychopharmacology.

Baird, A & Fugelsang, B (2004) “The emergence of consequential thought: evidence from neuroscience”, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Biological Sciences