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The Development of Drink-Driving Mass Media Advertising: The Role of Research

D Span and D Saffron

Road Safety Branch, Roads and Traffic Authority of New South Wales, PO Box 110, Rosebery NSW 2018, Australia


Mass media advertising is an important component of the drink-driving countermeasure program in New South Wales. Campaign objectives and target groups are based on analysis of crash statistics and market research on drivers.

Advertising research includes pre-testing of draft material, using group discussion to ensure that the intended messages are being communicated and that the objectives of the advertising are being met. A semi-quantitative research method incorporating individual interview has also been used on completed advertisements to assess communicative effectiveness of the final product.

Subjects for the research are selected from the "target" group for the campaign, using a screening questionnaire developed from survey research. A range of drink-driving themes has been addressed in advertising, including graphic depictions of crashes and consequences.

Research results are discussed in terms of the relevance of different themes to different target groups; and the positive and negative aspects of different styles of presentation.


Besides getting resources for road safety, the main task of the road safety manager is to use those resources most effectively to prevent road trauma. The management task is to choose the combination of actions which produces the best road safety outcomes.

The extent to which the best decisions can be made by a manager is limited by the relevance and reliability of the available information. Available data and research, and the research we conduct, provide the information. In choosing actions the manager needs to be clear about intended outcomes.

The drink drive strategy in NSW consists of a number of actions: service of alcohol programs in hotels and clubs, safer roadsides, encouragement of alternative transport and so on. For the last 13 years, the best known aspect of the NSW strategy has been random breath testing (RBT). The effects of RBT can be seen as one intended outcome to which advertising can contribute. Ever since RBT's beginning, it has been recognised that it is important that it be supported by publicity Homel (1988).

More generally, for any use of advertising in road safety, it is necessary to be as clear as possible about what the advertising is intended to achieve.

Another consideration is that advertising road safety is very different from advertising a product. A number of critical differences have been highlighted (Elliott, 1989) and include the nature of the audience, and the typical need to change existing behaviour and beliefs.


Advertising can do some things better than others. On its own it does not appear to be an efficient tool for quick behavioural or attitudinal change, nor is it usually an appropriate way of communicating complex issues. Advertising can increase awareness and saliency of a problem, inform, reinforce existing positions, and support other activities (Elliott, 1989).

The intended outcomes of advertising depends on the intended audience. Audiences, and objectives in relation to each audience, are based on crash data (which include very complete blood alcohol data) and market research. One audience is people who drive while impaired by alcohol, mainly males aged 17 to 40 years of age. This broad group can be divided into several categories which have different priorities in terms of publicity (Table 1). Other groups which are also of importance for campaigns: the general public and the police.

Table 1
Countermeasure Target Groups and Intended Mass Media Outcomes

Target Group Characteristics Intended Outcome
Hard-Core Drink-Drivers Poor response to countermeasures
Less motivated by consequences
Most likely to drink-drive
Judge less affected by alcohol
None (use other actions to address this group)
Medium Risk Drink-Drivers Somewhat responsive to activities
Usually avoid driving when "drunk"
Take risks in certain situations
Main media target
Reinforce crash risk
Encourage alternatives
Reinforce RBT/penalties
Low Risk Drink-Drivers Persuaded by consequences
Most compliant and responsible
General Public Supportive of countermeasures Establish new agenda
Demand for action
Police Commitment to enforcement Assure impact of RBT
Support RBT
Community image

It is not expected that advertising will be an efficient method of influencing the behaviour of the highest risk drink drivers, perhaps an older group who have been abusing alcohol and driving for many years.


Once overall objectives of a campaign have been set and the advertising agency briefed, three methods are typically used in the development and assessment of material (Table 2).

Table 2
Research Methods in Development and Assessment of Advertising Material

Method Use Strengths
Discussion Group Concept testing
Development stage
Identifying communication problems
Establishing relevance of scenario
Assess meeting objectives
Communication Testing Finished product
Existing material
Quantitative measure of communication
Assessment of effectiveness
Questionnaire Survey Pre/post campaign Large sample, wide coverage
Feedback on awareness and themes

Qualitative Research - Concept Testing

Discussion group research is typically used to assess draft advertising concepts during the development of the advertising material. Target groups are determined from the campaign objectives. The focus of the research is to gain feedback on positive and negative aspects of the concepts. The value of this method is in highlighting problems in meeting objectives: how well the intended messages are being communicated and the relevance of the scenario.

For campaigns aimed at the main drink-driving target group, a series of questions developed from survey research is used to select subjects.

Concept testing inevitably leads to confrontation with the advertising agency. Nevertheless, the research is important to ensure that campaign objectives are met, and the process helps build up expertise by the agency on the topic.

Communication Testing (Semi-Quantitative)

In order to obtain a more valid measure of the communicative effectiveness of advertisements, a semi-quantitative research method has often been employed, typically on completed material - Cognitive Response Analysis (a technique developed for quantiative applications by Research International, based on work by Shavitt and Brock (1986)). This method involves showing the advertisement to individual subjects and asking them to write down or talk about all of their thoughts and feelings which occur during exposure to the advertisement. Subjects rate the strength with which they hold each of the nominated viewpoints. Responses are subsequently rated as self-relevant/non-self-relevant, positive/negative and by category of response (message, communicator, execution). A number of other questions about the material can be included to build up information on the material in relation to the communication objectives.

Questionnaire Surveys

Questionnaire surveys have been used to monitor exposure to campaigns. Questions can be included to categorise respondents in terms of their drink-driving behaviour and attitudes in order to assess the degree to which target groups for the campaign have been reached.

Feedback on issues and themes recalled from advertising material is useful as a broad measure of how well communication objectives have been met in the field. Surveys can also provide an indication of specific changes in knowledge and perceptions following campaigns.


Enforcement and Legal Consequences

Enforcement and legal consequences are relevant messages to the target groups. Drivers cannot "argue" with being caught "over the limit", although they can deny risk of crashing. Furthermore, the perceived chances of being involved in a serious crash when speeding etc. are lower than the chances of being caught by the police. Hence the power of enforcement and legal consequences. There has therefore been an emphasis on enforcement themes in campaigns in NSW. Combining publicity and enforcement is an important and successful feature of road safety programs in Australia, also covering issues of speeding and seat belts.

Depicting Crashes

Research we have conducted on advertising and creative concepts indicates that there are problems in trying to influence drink drivers by depicting crashes. The more details of a crash which are shown the more likely for the portrayed crash to be attributed by a driver to causes other than alcohol, particularly causes external to the driver and outside his control. The research shows the difficulty of generating identification with the portrayed drink driver: depiction of crashes is more likely to generate empathy for the victim.

But the depiction of crash consequences can be used to keep the public informed of the continuing importance of drink driving as a road safety issue. This can help to increase individual's disapproval of drink driving, and to increase public demand for and acceptance of drink driving countermeasures.

Use of graphic depictions of crashes and consequences can be problematic. In one study assessing such material, a number of subjects were unable to finish the research, and many were unable to comment on the advertisements for some time after viewing. These results indicate that processing of messages might be impaired by graphic crash/consequence scenes.

Message Structure

A simple, focussed message can be more effective, especially in communicating to the main drink-driving target group. Messages need to be clear, concrete and relevant to the experiences of drink-drivers. In dealing with the main target group, it is important to focus on behaviour, reactions and consequences from the driver's point of view.

Use of Radio

While television advertising can reach a wide audience and provide a more memorable communication, radio advertising can be very effective as a supporting medium in reinforcing a campaign theme (for example, RBT). The absence of a visual image can be an advantage: there is less distraction from and more inherent focus on the main message, and hence more opportunity to encourage the listener to think about what is being presented.

Radio also offers the ability to reach drivers closer to a potential drink-driving situation.

Short Term versus Long Term Goals

The intended outcomes of advertising in the short term cannot be achieved by advertising alone. For example, it can raise issues, but then it needs to be combined with some other activities to help generate media stories. It can influence behaviour when used in combination with, to support, police activity such as RBT. Neither do we expect the intended outcomes of advertising in the longer term to be achieved by advertising alone. The aim is to influence behaviour by developing public knowledge, understanding and values in relation to drink driving. Significant groups include court and enforcement officers.

To meet its longer term aims advertising needs to be pushing in the same direction as other public information and school education projects and the attitudes-follow-behaviour effects of RBT (Berger, et al., 1990) There are also links to other fields, mainly health, in the relation to alcohol service and use, and to transport planning in relation to attitudes to private vehicle use. There are links to other messages relating to road safety and responsible road use. All of these should be combined as far as possible in a long term broadly based effort to change knowledge, understanding and values.


Advertising plays a part in road safety programs; it is not intended that it should work on its own. In constructing road safety programs we need to be clear about what each element, alone or in combination, is intended to achieve.

We need to be clear about what advertising is intended to achieve. There are different objectives for different audiences; for example moderate risk drink drivers, the general public.

In constructing programs and choosing their elements the road safety manager is guided by information. We gain information from several sources, including "market' research directly relating to the advertising being developed or used.

The research conducted directly on advertising has given us leads about what type of advertising can be used most effectively, for what particular purpose and target group.


Berger, D., Snortum, J., Homel, R., Hauge, R. and Loxley, W. (1990). Deterrence and prevention of alcohol-impaired driving in Australia, the United States and Norway. Justice Quarterly, 7(3), 454-465.

Elliott, B. (1989). Effective road safety campaigns: A practical handbook. Federal Office of Road Safety, Consultants Report CR80.

Homel, R. (1988). Policing and punishing the drinking driver: A study of general and specific deterrence, NY:Springer-Verlag.

Shavitt, and Brock, T. (1986). Self relevant responses in commercial persuasion field and experimental tests, Advertising and Consumer Psychology, 3.