This Is Your Camry On Drugs

The change in the social perception of drunk driving is one of the great public health success stories of the last half-century. It went from being perceived as an amusing bit of recklessness to something truly despicable, and today drunk driving deaths are half of what they were a few decades ago. And now that recreational marijuana is legal in Washington and Colorado, almost surely to be followed by other states, there's a renewed need to discourage driving while high.

The key to the success of the drunk driving campaign was creating a new social norm, one in which people would discourage each other from driving drunk. It also gave people a means to avoid it, by popularizing the idea of the designated driver. Washington state is starting a campaign to discourage driving while high with three PSAs soon to be airing in the state. No frying eggs here:

OK, so that's kind of funny. But I'm a little skeptical about whether it will have a dramatic impact. The ad does include the idea of social opprobrium, but in this case it isn't driving while high that earns this dude scorn, it's just being a dumb stoner.

The other two ads in the campaign are similar, showing people doing everyday activities very poorly while others around them scoff at their stoned incompetence. In one, a guy playing pickup basketball dribbles the ball endlessly while the other players wait for him to take his foul shot; in the other, a guy hangs a TV on the wall and is inordinately proud of himself until it crashes to the floor.

This is a much gentler approach than some similar campaigns, which have focused more on the disastrous potential of driving drunk or while texting (this one, from the U.K., may be the most gruesome). So perhaps they're viewing this as a multi-stage effort, and this first stage is just to introduce the idea of driving while high as a potential problem, then later on they'll try to horrify viewers. But it does present a new challenge. There are certain psychological factors that should play out similarly whether we're talking about drunk driving, high driving, or distracted driving—people's risk perceptions, their responses to fear appeals, and so on. On the other hand, pot exists within a social milieu and set of rituals that are different from those of alcohol, and that may affect how you want to confront the driving issue. For instance, a lot of drunk driving happens when people travel to an establishment where alcohol is served (there are around 65,000 bars and nightclubs in America), then need to get home, whereas we don't (yet) have thousands of cannabis cafes.

Communication researchers have produced a zillion experimental and survey-based studies on what does and doesn't work in various kinds of public health PSAs, on topics from drunk driving to drug use to smoking. So this opens up a whole new area to investigate. Better start getting those grant applications ready.

Here are the other two ads, in case you're curious:

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