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DOT Turns to "Fear Marketing" After Rise in Pedestrian Fatalities

LINNEA ARDEN, HOST: The Department of Transportation is trying a new safety campaign - SHOCK. It is putting up four million dollars worth of billboards showing a blurry image of a man falling backwards as he’s hit by a car. It’s part of a citywide effort to combat the sharp rise in pedestrian fatalities. Amy Fairchild is the Dean of the College of Public Health at The Ohio State University. I asked her what a fear marketing campaign is. And whether they work?

AMY FAIRCHILD: So a fear campaign is something that stimulates a sense of a threat in the person that sees it. And it might be a sense of threat that they're going to get a disease and suffer, that they're going to die, that they're going to suffer some kind of stigma or shame as the result of engaging in a particular behavior.

ARDEN: Do they work?

FAIRCHILD: They do work. The empirical evidence is pretty clear. Fear does work to change behavior. If you can use a fear campaign, and give somebody that sense of, well, if I just slow down, if I just stopped smoking, if I just stopped drinking, then I can avoid some of these kinds of consequences. It works a little better. But it's remarkably effective.

ARDEN: So in this kind of case, where it has to do with traffic and pedestrian safety, you wouldn't really have that stigma or scapegoating associated with that you would find in cases where you're using it for disease for example.

FAIRCHILD: That's exactly right. If you look at some of the history of the kinds of fear based campaigns that have worked, and Australia is famous for having some really grisly fear based campaigns, when it comes to distracted driving, for example, they almost always show consequences to the to the person driving to other people in the in, in the car, these are people that the driver cares about. So it gives a sense of how is this going to affect you more immediately - you're going to feel guilt and shame for having been responsible for the deaths of your friends.

ARDEN: I want to ask you a little about the images though, because you just mentioned these grisly ones in Australia. And I feel like in comparison, when you look at these billboards, it's kind of just like a gray facade. You know, it is a man getting hit by a car, there’s coffee kind of spilling everywhere, but they don't seem that scary, for lack of a better word. Do you think this is fear inducing enough?

FAIRCHILD: I would say my initial reaction is whose fear is it trying to trigger? For me, it makes me, as a pedestrian, feel a sense of fear. So it's suggesting to me I need to be careful when crossing the street because people are speeding. I don't know that it's speaking to the vehicle driver, we don't even see the vehicle driver in the image after all, so it's focusing us on the pedestrian.

ARDEN: Are these usually immediately effective? When you say these campaigns do work, is it something you see right off the bat? Or do we kind of become numb to the images over time?

FAIRCHILD: If you just think fear alone is going to work, then we're not doing our jobs as public health officials. Now whether this particular campaign is going to be one of those things that begins to edge us forward, or whether we need to see something a little bit more focusing on the driver, remains to be seen. But there's no question. It's an issue that we as a society need to be more aware of, and drivers need to be warned about. So my question here is, is this a sufficient warning to the driver? Do I have a sense of what's going to happen to me if I don't slow down and I hit somebody?

ARDEN: Amy Fairchild, the Dean of the College of Public Health at The Ohio State University. Thank you so much.

FAIRCHILD: You're welcome. Thank you.

Linnea Arden, Columbia Radio News.


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