Consider this: it is a sunny summer day and you are enjoying a swim in the pool when you are startled out of your senses at the sight of a drowned boy at the bottom of the pool. It takes you a few seconds to realize that it is actually only a perfect high-resolution 3D image with the question: “Where is your child?”
This was actually part of a campaign entitled “Watch Around Water” aimed at promoting and encouraging proper supervision of children while in and around water. Regardless of whether or not one agrees with this attention- grabbing approach, also called “shockvertising,” many argue that the use of such disturbing images and blunt slogans is necessary to break through the media clutter in order to raise awareness and stimulate action on a public interest cause. The fact is, eliciting shock remains only one approach for what is called public interest or service communication, which plays an increasingly prominent role in the world today.
Public service communication serves the public interest, with campaigns that typically run as a part of a collaborative effort and that aim at educating and raising awareness of social issues in an effort to shape attitudes and behaviors.
Stimulating positive social change can range from urging drivers to fasten seat belts and discouraging smoking, to highlighting social injustices such as poverty and child labor, and drumming up national unity and cohesiveness.
Influencing the agendas of decision-makers, contributing to a healthier, more vibrant democratic society, educating the public about serious problems and effective solutions, providing a platform for expression and exchange of opinions; these are all attainable objectives of public interest communication, and are all direly needed in this part of the world. Some would argue that we do get our share of public service campaigns that mirror and shape some of the most important social issues facing our region: from “don’t drink and drive” campaigns in Bahrain, to tributes to the unsung heroes who rebuilt Oman after a devastating natural disaster, to environment protection and water saving campaigns across the region, to the many industrious campaigns calling for national unity and peaceful conflict resolution in Lebanon.
The truth is, most notably when it comes to Lebanon, many of these campaigns end up falling on deaf ears, regardless of their noble cause or message, as they are launched either by the government, by entities that are aligned with certain political parties, or by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that are often unfairly perceived as having a biased agenda. In light of the extremely polarized public scene, not only does the message not resonate with its audiences, it sometimes even backfires.
In such a situation, public interest campaigns launched by the private sector may have even more impact than the historically proven impact of government or NGO-initiated ones. This only further highlights the critical importance of “policy innovation” in modern times, the so-called “public-private partnership,” especially in many of the countries in the Middle East where government purses are strained, and where the private sector’s vast resources make it an irresistible ‘partner’ for public interest initiatives.
After all, this can only be a win-win situation, as the company reaps the benefits of a positive reputation and goodwill it can bank on, while the government advances its goals of positive and lasting social change.
So the sponsor or entity behind a public interest campaign plays a major role in determining its effectiveness, but so does the actual message being sent out, as well as the communication vehicles and channels used to convey it.
Messages can be as non-controversial as urging people to give up dangerous or unhealthy behaviors and to obey the law, or they can ask people to think and act differently about divisive social issues and change long-entrenched cultural behaviors and norms.
Whatever the message is, it should be a unifying one that steers clear of political land mines or controversy that only serve to undermine its impact. For example, rather than stir passions about unfulfilled promises by elected officials, the message should aim at creating a more educated voter who values and enforces accountability instead of irking the public by underlining their apathetic attitude and sense of entitlement. The message should aim at highlighting the benefits of a more involved citizenry, and rather than raising the ire of government by pointing fingers at corrupt practices, the message should focus on more responsive and responsible governance at all levels.
A powerful example of a unifying public interest campaign was launched in the United States in the wake of the September 11 attacks. Entitled “I am an American,” the campaign carried the first motto of the US, “e pluribus unum” or “out of many, one.” The campaign contributed to reinvigorating Americans’ sense of pride while reminding them of their plurality and pro-actively containing any xenophobic reactions against others because of their looks, religion, accent, or ethnicity.
When it comes to the creative channels and executions used in public interest campaigns, shocking images and words can do the trick, although many would consider these as treading the easy path.
Capturing the attention of the public and inspiring a change in attitude and behavior can be done with a multitude of other creative vehicles. A notable example that continues to be engaging even after six decades is the US “Smokey the Bear” campaign aimed at protecting forests against fire, which started with the creation of an icon that soon ranked alongside Santa Claus and Mickey Mouse as one of the most recognizable icons.
The longest running public service campaign in US history with $1 billion in donated media over the last three decades, Smokey spurred Americans to think twice before throwing a match in the woods or leaving a smoking campfire, thus reducing forest lost annually to fire from 22 million to four million acres.
This example only reinforces the power of creative channels, which can range from TV and billboards to a created icon featured on posters, related literature, and comic books. It can even have its own website, licensed costume, school lesson plans, historical poster collection, licensed product line and even postage stamp, going as far as giving awards to individuals who help further the cause in question.
Studying these two examples is all the more pertinent to us Lebanese when we reflect on how an attack can unite Americans but only entrench our division, and how they took action to protect their environment, whereas we stand indifferent and helpless in the face of ravaging fires that are quickly depleting what is left of our scant forests. This only underlines the critical importance of public service communication that can send out the much needed message of personal responsibility and inspire us to come together as a nation and to take better care of our country.
Dima Itani & Ramsay G. Najjar S2C