Fear and loathing Down Under

Tom Coleman
22 December 2015

Ah, Australia, with your funny version of rugby, your positive inflections and your impressive selection of potently venomous reptiles.

Here’s to you, Australia. You do things differently. And that includes your public health campaigns.

Australian public health advertising has a brash élan few others can match. Take, for instance, this Australian anti-smoking campaign, which I saw on my recent trip there:

Still with me?

Now that’s pretty awful, isn’t it? Just imagine being buried alive. Gasping for air. Panicking. Your life slowly slipping through your fingers. Well, this is a very real possibility for any smoker. It could easily be you, or me, or a loved one. There’s nothing overtly shocking or grotesque about the ad – just a poignant message executed masterfully.

Smoke, and run the risk of a painfully slow death. Perfect.

In contrast, this ‘hard-hitting’ ad that aired in Britain (which was also rolled out into an extensive print ad campaign) features close-ups of a roll-up cigarette packed full of decomposing flesh; a rather grotesque personification of the ‘smoking rots you from the inside out’ sentiment the campaign hinged on:

The truth? For me, as a smoker, I’m sad to say it falls flat.

Here, there’s no tangible sense of urgency or consequence. It’s just revolting, and difficult to watch – but for the wrong reasons. Shock takes centre stage, and the emotional costs of smoking feel like an afterthought. There’s no element of loss, or anguish, or heartache. Just some gross, squelchy, fatty substance dribbling on your shoes.

It’s not particularly sad. It’s just icky. It makes me want to reach for the remote, not put down the fag packet.

So what separates the Australian campaign from the British one? Fear. The Australian ad is genuinely scary.

And that’s something Australians do rather well.

If you know anyone that’s spent some time Down Under, ask them about TAC ads, and watch the blood drain from their face. Or Google them yourself, and feel the blood drain from your own. The Transport Accident Commission of Victoria (TACVictoria, or just, TAC) puts out genuinely legendary ads. Ads that are forever lodged in the consciousness of Victoria’s motorists.

This one is a particularly poignant example:

Pretty powerful stuff, right?

Their approach – to ‘upset, outrage and appall’, apparently – has been so successful, it’s been replicated the world over. TAC ads have been remade or re-voiced for China, South  Africa, and a few of our fellow EU member states. And it was exported wholesale to New Zealand. Much like their anti-smoking campaigns, TAC’s campaigns largely centre on the possible negative emotional consequences of poor life decisions.

No frills. No fancy CGI graphics. Just the truth. And it works.

So good are these ads, we’ve copied them. Our own, award-winning THINK! campaign is almost identical:

It’s no surprise that fear is a potent motivator. But I think the lesson here is that, to hit home, fear needs to have personal relevance. And that’s where Australia’s public institutions really shine. They don’t resort to shock tactics. They tell the truth.

Sometimes, the truth is utterly terrifying.

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