2023-10-03T16:01:29-04:00October 3rd, 2023|

Billboards and Pencils

I’ve spent a lot of time on expressways in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of billboards. Just as the advertising suggests, I do notice them and often contemplate the message.

Take for example, “Don’t Text and Drive Die.” This particular message was chosen in 2019 to roll out a $30,600 educational campaign for “Distracted Drivers Awareness Month.” If, while driving by, you look at the billboard long enough, you’ll notice this is brought to you by State Farm Insurance, Michigan State Police, Sheriff’s Association and the Transportation Improvement Association.

Every one of these participating entities has its logo present on the billboard, likely a requirement of a grant agreement. In 2021, the message chosen for the $20,000 billboard campaign said, “Choose LIVING not LOOKING.”

Billboards… that warn drivers of distractions… with fine print… paid with grant funds… donated by an auto insurance agency… partnering with government. Am I the only one seeing the irony here?

The basis for these message campaigns stems from a tragic event in 2010 where a distracted driver killed a student at Romeo High School in Oakland County. This is every community’s worst nightmare. Perhaps someone who reads this post is either in some way a victim or someone who has harmed another unintentionally.

I am not making light of this circumstance, rather I want to warn that good intentions coming from government don’t always lead to rational outcomes. I don’t believe fine print on billboards causes a lot of accidents, but I do think we ought to ask if it is necessary.

Going back to a time when kids used pencils for school, there was a drug use prevention campaign by the Bureau for At-Risk Youth, based in Plainview, New York. The campaign featured pencils imprinted with the slogan “Too Cool to Use Drugs.” Very quickly it was discovered that the message changed entirely once a student sharpened the pencil a few times. As the pencil wore down, the message would read “Cool to Use Drugs,” and then simply “Use Drugs.” This was either a mistake in marketing, craftsmanship or a pencil manufacturer failing at quality control.

Was there any harm from this message being changed? Did students in Plainview decide to start using drugs because of the mixed message? It’s rational to believe that other factors contribute more to a child’s choice of healthy lifestyles than messages on a pencil. These factors include positive influence from parents, siblings, peers and involvement in positive activities.

These billboard and pencil campaigns represent cases of analog social media initiatives that have gone awry and are not overtly harmful to citizens.

These examples serve as a reminder that grant programs focused on influencing human behavior often have requirements that are not compatible with logic.

In the world of social media, we are inundated with public service announcements, advertisements and outright propaganda brought to you by a conglomerate of government bureaus, not-for-profit organizations and for-profit corporations. While many of these messages are helpful, some are potentially harmful. Either way, these communications offer clues as to how the system operates.

The next time you see a social media public service announcement, consider the fine print.

Consider who are the ones messaging you, why they are messaging you, and whom your action would be benefitting.