Road Warrior: ICBC Drives Home The Point

Blitz Magazine, January 1998

You’re on Highway 1, the Coquihalla, the Stanley Park Causeway — wherever. Traffic inches along. You reach the source of the problem and gape. At someone on a stretcher, smashed glass, twisted steel. Then you move ahead, go on with your day and you don’t think about it again.

icbcActually, you do think about it. Perhaps without realizing it, you have been thinking about being a better driver. And not because of the carnage you regularly see but, in large part, because a beautifully‑executed social marketing campaign keeps telling you that you must become a better driver. Even if you’re a die‑hard speed demon, you are starting to realize that speed­ing just ain’t cool.

With ever‑increasing numbers of cars sharing never‑increasing traffic arteries, and with new phenomena such as ‘road rage,’ bad driving is no longer acceptable — not socially, not economically. Like it or not, BC has a ‘socialized’ insurance system and its costs are borne by every driver in the province. While many types of behaviour — from sliding through stop signs to talking on the phone — constitute ‘bad’ driving, speed is the killer. Everybody’s guilty and, in BC, each time speeding results in damage or death, everybody pays.

Prevention, therefore, is the key to saving lives and controlling insurance rates. And, in late1993, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia realized that it was time for a campaign to change driving behaviour.

“We knew that most British Columbians felt that insurance premiums were too high,” says Darlene Hyde, ICBC’s Vice President, Public Affairs & Corporate Marketing. “We also knew that the growth in premiums was not attributable to internal costs—it was directly related to claims costs, and the frequency and severity with which people were crashing into each other. And our research showed that most people didn’t make the connection between what was happening on the roads and what was happening to premium levels. So we had to present the notion of prevention, and the notion that, through a collective effort, they could keep rates down.”

In 1993, the awareness rate regarding safe driving was 8%. ICBC knew it needed a massive marketing push and decided to build a program around Road Sense— awareness of bad driving vs. good driving.

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First, it looked at what other countries were doing. The only country which was really active was Australia, where the road fatality rate is triple that of BC. “The Australian crash prevention program became the model for us,” says Hyde. “But Australians believe in calling a spade a spade and not trying to make things look pretty. We tested their ads here and found that they wouldn’t fly — Canadians are too squeamish. So our ads had to suit the Canadian experience and not be quite as hard‑hitting.”

Diane Cote, ICBC’s Manager of Corporate Marketing and Communications Services, stresses that the concept of the campaign also began at the grassroots level, not only in the ICBC boardroom.

“Speed is not just our issue. Many British Columbians believe that speed needs to be dealt with. Many of those people have been hurt and lost family members and we wanted to give a voice to their frustration. Then there’s a very vocal group of people who don’t want any control over speed, yet the people who get hurt the most are those who want to speed. It’s a complex issue.”

Another complicating factor was time. It took 20 years to impress upon people the un‑coolness of drinking and driving and, with speed knocking off people daily and a lack of tolerance for increased insurance rates, ICBC didn’t have 20 years to get people to slow down—as Hyde says, “we had to go big, or go home”. In addition, the BC government was about to follow the Australian example by instituting the highly‑controversial photo radar.

“Our research showed that British Columbians supported tougher measures,” continues Hyde. “But there were people who felt that speeding was not their problem and that the government was using photo radar as a cash cow. We had to disabuse them of that notion, show them what speed was responsible for and get people to take responsibility for their driving behaviour. The fact is that, if we can slow down the general population by 1%, we can save $30 million in claims costs. So our prevention mar­keting efforts had to support photo radar, as well as other up­coming legislative initiatives.”

In early 1994, ICBC named Palmer Jarvis Communications as its agency of record. With just nine months to go before photo radar hit the streets, the creative team had to act fast. Working with ICBC’s in‑house marketing department, the agency devised a four‑phase campaign strategy—Phase I showed that speeding is a social problem; Phase 2 that it is a personal problem; Phase 3 that it is not acceptable and Phase 4 inculcates the idea that ‘I can and will do something about it.’

Sue Anne Linde, the ICBC Account Director at Palmer Jarvis, says that the campaign had to overcome two emotional and intellectual obstacles. “We found that people equated speeding with freedom and control. And we found that most people thought ‘I’m not going to cause an accident, it’s the other guy. And yes, I speed, but I can handle it.’ So our program had to change those attitudes.” Furthermore, the campaign had to be constant and widely­-varied. “The advertising had to come at people from different directions,” continues Linde. “Not everyone is reached by the same argument, so the ads had to target the heart, the mind and the wallet. We felt that ads which were too graphic would desensitize viewers and make them want to distance themselves from the message and the message‑bearer. We wanted emotional impact while remaining engaged with the viewer.”

In short order, British Columbians began seeing prevention ads on television. They aren’t quite as brutal as the Australian ads, but they are hard‑hitting. Viewers have watched a car bash a young skate‑boarder; a rushed executive hit a pedestrian; a guilt‑consumed man deliver breakfast to his wheelchair­-bound wife; the horror-­stricken face of a mother as she discovers her daughter’s body underneath a vehicle. To date, there have been 24 spots, all tagged with the line ‘Slow Down. Use Your Road Sense’, or ‘BC’s Drive To Save Lives’.

The television ads have been backed up by some print ads and thought‑provoking radio spots, mainly about enforcement. Cote notes that the latter is crucial to the success of the campaign.

“There’s no evidence that people will change their behaviour because of advertising, no matter how powerful it is. With road safety, you have to have teeth behind the advertising. When we tell the public that there’ll be increased police presence on the streets, drinking and driving goes down, speeding goes down, seat belt use goes up. The perception that peo­ple will get caught if they break the law is extremely important to the whole strategy.”

Hyde, who points to the ‘5‑E’ concept of the ICBC social marketing campaign as the corporation’s ultimate guide, says that enforcement and advertising are crucial, but that so is community involvement. Over three years, staff from the coroner’s office and hospital trauma units have made presentations to 100,000 high school students. Vancouver Grizzlies players have urged kids to drive safely; Speedwatch and Crimewatch groups have sprung up all over the province.

“We knew we couldn’t do it alone,” says Hyde. “We’ve developed coalitions and strategic partnerships with everyone we could—municipalities, police, the BC Safety Council, the BC Automobile Association, the Motor Vehicle Branch. For a social marketing program to work, you have to achieve critical mass. Education through media works, but not in isolation. Communities have to become the focal point of change.”

Cote notes that no one ever said they needed a lot of advertising for Road Sense. “What we needed was a complete, integrated social marketing plan. And we got it. We have materials in schools, our media relations department makes sure that we get plenty of news coverage and our field people are very involved at the community level. The advertis­ing supports, and is supported by, all of that.”

ICBC also supports the creative concepts with vast amounts of research, to ensure that everything stays on track. And, while it is still too early for exact measurements of savings in terms of dollars and lives, the corporation does know that everything is precisely on track. Road Sense awareness sits at 91%. ICBC has seen a significant trailing­ off of deaths and severe injuries; and in‑road speed loops show that people are slowing down.

Hyde says that the program’s success also requires ‘carrots and sticks.’ “Prevention has to be embedded in our product and service philosophy. Nothing changes behaviour faster than a $173 ticket. There’s a new $250 deductible if you cause an accident. We have our RoadStar program, with its 40% discount for accident‑free driving. Once you lose your discount, it’s harder to get it back. And we’re working on providing more rewards, with the idea that people can control their own insurance premiums by changing their behaviour.”

Thus far, ICBC has spent $5+ million on road safety programs. But as road safety awareness shot up, so did public support for the Crown corporation’s expenditure of premium dollars on prevention programs. Hyde says that the expense was carefully considered. “With the shift in attitudes and the decrease in major claims, we are looking at a measurable annual return on investment of at least 2:1. We wouldn’t embark on something unless we thought we could get at least double our money back in cost benefits on the claim side. And we are really starting to reap the benefits now.”

If we look at other social marketing programs, such as Power Smart or the Blue Box program, we see that behaviour changed quickly and, pretty much, permanently. Hyde agrees that one significant factor about the ICBC Road Sense campaign is that it can’t really end — ever. “The heaviest slogging was making British Columbians aware that speed is a problem and that each one of them might be part of that problem. Then we provided solutions and options — little bits of behaviour which every­one can do. But the point of any social marketing program is to achieve sustained behavioural change. Yet when we’ve pulled the ads for a few months, we’ve noticed decay in top‑of‑mind awareness. And even when we do transform attitudinal change into perma­nent, internalized habit, we’ll achieve a plateau. Then we’ll have to begin again with new drivers.”

It says something about the creativity of the ads that they are extremely appealing to young drivers — Cote says that they have something of a cult following. And she credits the ICBC‑Palmer Jarvis relationship with a good deal of the success of the Road Sense campaign. “It’s been a true cooperative effort and we’ve found it very rewarding. We all feel that we’ve done something of real value.”

Sue Anne Linde agrees. “We’re so impressed by this client. These are committed, passionate people faced with the enormous challenge of reducing the risk of road transportation in this province. Yet they approach their business with the same enthusiasm that we have for ours. And we have the satisfaction of knowing that we used the basic tools of advertising to effect positive social change.”


1.     Education: mass media exposure, community mobilization, third-party endorsement

2.     Enforcement: tell the public that police will be enforcing the law; coordinate their street presence.

3.     Engineering: change the physical environment through improvements to road ways.

4.     Evaluation: track and measure results

5.     Environment: enforce the notion that the ultimate Road Sense is to take the bus.

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In Your Face, Down Under

As Darlene Huge remarked earlier, “Australians believe in calling a spade a spade and not trying to make things look pretty.”

That’s quite true–the ultra-realistic road sense campaign created by Grey Advertising Melbourne for the Victoria Transport Accident Commission (TAC) is unsparingly in your face. While Palmer Jarvis created 30-second commercials which were as compelling in their elegance as their message, Australian viewers watched extremely graphic 60-second spots. In addition, anyone at sporting events, community events or on city roads saw mobile billboards, banners, signs and transit posters bearing lines such as ‘If You Drink, Then Drive, You’re a Bloody Idiot’, ‘Country People Die on Country Roads’, ‘Concentrate or Kill’ and ‘Belt Up or Suffer the Pain’.

Brutal, but effective. The campaign, which began in 1989, resulted in a 51% reduction in fatalities. TAC, the sole provider of transport accident and personal injury insurance in the state of Victoria (population 5 million), invested $125 million ($55 million in advertising), and reaped a saving of over $500 million in claims costs. A further $1.6 billion was saved in medical, police and emergency services, lost productivity and other community costs. Unaided recall rose to 95%, community support to 98%. The 22-spot campaign also helped legitimize police enforcement and provided moral support for police officers.

Grey took the approach that road safety should be marketed as though it were a consumer product which had to survive in a tough market. The agency broke Victoria’s traffic problem into consumer sectors and targeted them accordingly. An image of a bruised young man in a hospital bed, with his head in a steel brace, was aimed at young, blue-collar males who were the greatest drunk-driving offenders. An image of a van smashing into the side of a semi targeted those who insisted on driving while tired, and the graphic ‘Country Kids’ disabused rural types of the previously-unshakable notion that city folk cause country-road accidents because they don’t know how to drive properly.

Grey’s research turned up major differences between the two cultures–differences which showed that there’s no way the Australian campaign could have worked in Canada. For example, in a resultant list of Dos and Don’ts, Grey’s research found that the spots should be as shocking and emotional as possible and should not threaten Victorians with authority, uniforms, financial penalties or, astonishingly, even suggest that they cannot have a drink before driving.

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