Seat Belt Education (1985-Present)

The Ad Council has promoted driving safety, one of the first civilian issues addressed after World War II, since 1945. However, it wasn’t until 1985, that the Ad Council and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration partnered to launch the Seat Belt Education campaign, one of the most influential campaigns to address driving safety.

The campaign was developed to encourage vehicle passengers to use seat belts, and featured Vince and Larry, two crash test dummies who dramatized what could happen when you don’t wear a seatbelt. The public service advertisements (PSAs) included the tagline, “You can learn a lot from a dummy? Buckle your safety belt.”

In the first six months of 1986, a DOT survey in 19 cities reported that 39% of drivers reported using their seat belts as opposed to 23% a year before. Overall, between 1982 and 1988, seat belt usage by all vehicle passengers nationwide increased from 11 to 47 percent. While the campaign was not the only factor, it was definitely a significant one as statistics reported before the launch indicated that while 80% of Americans believed seat belts work, only 11% regularly used them.

The public’s motivation to buckle up spilled over into the halls of power and since then a large majority of states have enacted laws mandating the use of safety belts. Though the Ad Council is non partisan and non political and therefore does not design advertising to influence the passage of legislation, it is generally conceded that awareness of the importance of seat belts increased as a result of the PSAs and their constant reminders to “Buckle Up.” In 1989, the use of seat belts in the states that had enacted laws reportedly rose from 21% to 70%.

According to DOT, an estimated 29,568 lives were saved by seat belts between 1983 and 1991. Among those saved, approximately one-quarter were in states without mandatory seat belt laws. If all front seat occupants had worn seat belts, NHTSA estimates that an additional15,000 lives would have been saved in 1989 alone. By 1994, when motor vehicle crash deaths were at the lowest level in 30 years, an estimated 65,290 lives were saved by seat belts and more than 1.5 million moderate to critical injuries were prevented.

In 1991, a brief tempest swirled around crash dummies Vince and Larry. A New Jersey toy company managed to obtain rights to use the characters and began manufacturing its own Crash Dummies – appealing to the childish interest in mayhem. When the manufacturer advertised the toys on TV, three major networks banished the Vince and Larry PSAs from the airwaves saying that the public might construe their safety messages as promotion of the commercial toys. As it turned out, however, the safety message of Vince and Larry proved more permanent than an individual product in the volatile toy market.

In its first six years, the Seat Belt Education campaign garnered more than $337 million in donated media time and space. In 1990, the campaign was recognized with a Gold Effie award from the New York chapter of the American Marketing Association.

Though much ground had been gained on vehicle safety, motor vehicle crashes were still the leading cause of death among children. In 1995, the campaign shifted its focus to parents and caregivers, reminding them to buckle up children in the backseat and buckle their own safety belt no matter how short the trip.

In 1999, Vince & Larry and the original timeline were retired and a new series of more realistic PSAs designed to target part-time seat belt users was launched with the slogan, “Buckle Up. Always.” The PSAs depict graphic crashes that happen close to home, often through no fault of the driver; to help people understand that there is never a safe time
to be unbuckled.

Since the Crash Test Dummies were introduced to the American public in 1985, seat belt usage has increased from 14% to 79%, saving an estimated 85,000 lives. Most recently, the campaign again shifted its focus to address the staggering 90% of all children in the U.S who should be restrained in a booster seat but are not. The goal of this PSA campaign is to educate parents of children who have outgrown their child safety seat, that a booster seat is a life-saving transition to an adult seat belt. The new work will be distributed in early 2004.

TV Commercials:

Double Date (1990)

Desert Jeans (1992)

Backseat Baby (1997)

Enclave (2001)

Oh Dear (2001)

Ad Council Campaigns That Have Made a Difference

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