Media strategies can have a profound influence on the progress of social movements, and because of the perishable nature of news and trends, activists need to continuously update their messages and strategies. This is especially true in today’s environment, where the media marketplace is highly fragmented and the public’s attention span is measured in 140-character tweets. The big challenge today is the sustainability of media initiatives to influence policy, norms, and behaviors.
The 37-year history of the anti-drunk driving campaign demonstrates how to navigate this environment well. The issue of drunk driving exploded onto America’s public, media, and policy agendas in 1980, thanks to an activist named Candy Lightner, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver. Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and before long, there were nearly 500 chapters across the United States. MADD proved highly adept at exploiting controversy to generate press coverage, including the organization of sit-ins at state legislatures, where members demanded tougher anti-drunk driving laws.
MADD had a big impact, and over its first five years, alcohol-related traffic deaths trended downward. By 1985, however, MADD's message, while still important, was no longer fresh and newsworthy, and media attention began to turn elsewhere. And as media coverage declined, the downward curve in alcohol-related traffic fatalities ground to a halt. Clearly, the movement needed a fresh new idea.
Making a media connection
An important turning point occurred in late 1985, when a popular Boston-area television news reporter, Dennis Kauff of WBZ-TV, suffered the same fate as Candy Lightner’s daughter. I had just launched the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health to develop media strategies for promoting public health. As I grappled with which issue to tackle first, Kauff’s tragic death presented an opportunity to generate sustained attention to the drunk driving issue in Massachusetts. The Boston press corps had lost one of its own. They were enraged and engaged.
I asked John Henning, WBZ’s news anchor and the dean of the Boston press corps, to join me in hosting a meeting at Harvard to consider ways, within good journalistic practices, to focus attention on the problem and deepen public understanding about what to do about it. Some 45 journalists attended and later returned for more than 20 monthly sessions, during which they heard from public policy experts, grilled state legislators, and made news. Governor Michael Dukakis even credited the sessions for contributing to the enactment of the Massachusetts Safe Roads Act.
Taking a Nordic approach
Meanwhile, in 1986, I learned about the “the designated driver” concept, invented in the Nordic countries several decades earlier. Closer to home, in Washington, DC, the nonprofit Washington Regional Alcohol Program (WRAP) was promoting the same idea via a three-month media project. I studied WRAP’s approach, and then traveled to Sweden and Norway to learn how entire societies had adopted the practice.
I was attracted to the designated driver concept for several reasons: It promotes a social norm that “the driver doesn’t drink”; lends social legitimacy to the non-drinking option; encourages people to plan ahead; places the issue on the interpersonal agenda of small social groups; asks for only a modest change in behavior (take your turn as the designated driver); and provides a concrete, narrowly focused “ask” for the general public. I thought of it as a “hook” that could help re-ignite national interest in the drunk driving issue.
Help from Hollywood
Hence, my colleagues and I set out to make “designated driver” a household word, initially in Massachusetts in 1986, with WBZ as a partner, and subsequently nationwide starting in 1988, in collaboration with broadcast TV networks and Hollywood studios. At the national level, we developed a communication strategy with three components: news, advertising, and entertainment programming.
An important breakthrough occurred when TV writers agreed to depict the use of designated drivers in top-rated television programs such as “Cheers,” “L.A. Law,” and “The Cosby Show.” The strength of this approach was that role model characters delivered short messages, embedded within dialogue in a dramatic context, that facilitated social learning. Over a four-year period starting in late 1988, more than 160 prime time programs incorporated sub-plots, scenes, and dialogue highlighting the drunk driving problem, including frequent references to the use of the designated driver.
At Harvard’s request, ABC, CBS, and NBC aired frequent public service announcements during prime time, encouraging the use of designated drivers. And the center’s public relations activities reinforced the campaign, generating extensive news coverage through counter-intuitive combinations such as the Harvard-Hollywood connection.
Relying on $300,000 in annual foundation funding, the campaign generated more than $100 million per year in earned media exposure—enough for a major new product introduction in the United States. And that was our aim: to package and market a new product—the designated driver—to the American public.
The campaign soon transformed into a national movement as a broad range of prominent individuals, government agencies, advocacy groups, professional sports leagues, corporations, and police departments endorsed and promoted the designated driver concept.
“Designated driver” rapidly became a household phrase in the United States and was included in the 1991 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. That same year, according to a Roper Center Poll, 52 percent of Americans under the age of 30 who drank had served as a designated driver. Among frequent drinkers, 54 percent had been driven home by a designated driver. More importantly, the curve of drunk driving fatalities turned downward again, falling by nearly 25 percent over a four-year period. We attributed the decline to several factors, including the massive media exposure generated by the campaign.
Confirmation of drunk driving’s decline
Perhaps the strongest evidence of the campaign’s influence came from a large-scale survey sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Drivers were stopped for confidential breath testing on weekend nights, when drinking is most likely to occur. Approximately 95 percent of drivers who were stopped consented to a breath test and interview. The percentage of tested drivers with positive blood-alcohol levels declined from 25.9 percent in 1986 to 16.9 percent in 1996. In addition, the percentage of drivers who self-identified as designated drivers increased from 4.4 percent in 1986 to 24.7 percent in 1996. Notably, two-thirds of designated drivers in the 1996 roadside survey had blood-alcohol levels of 0.0 percent.
Fast forward to today. Everything has changed. The media marketplace is insanely fragmented. The public’s attention span has declined. The 20th century’s “one-to-many” communication paradigm has been supplanted by “many-to-many,” increasing the complexity of the media environment by orders of magnitude. Even breakthrough creative ideas—like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that went viral in the summer of 2014—fade quickly.
The challenge is that societal change takes time—years or even decades. In the new media environment, how will campaign organizers reach diverse groups and sustain their attention long enough to accomplish something important? At Harvard Chan, we’re tackling the thorny problem of distracted driving (“today’s drunk driving”) to provide a vehicle for testing 21st century, media-based models of social change. We’re asking the question, how do we take a complex problem, break it down into separate, manageable components, and identify one component to serve as a catalyst for creating momentum on a broader variety of fronts? And then, how do we create a series of “peaks of synchronicity” in media attention—that is, brief, coordinated bursts of exposure for the campaign’s message across multiple media channels—to build and sustain our effort over time in the absence of a large paid media budget? Hopefully, some of these lessons will apply broadly.