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The Designated Driver Campaign: Why It Worked

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This holiday season marks the "21st Birthday" of the U.S. Designated Driver Campaign, which was created by the Harvard School of Public Health's Center for Health Communication in partnership with Hollywood's creative community and leading TV networks. This milestone offers a good opportunity to look back at the campaign, and to analyze the reasons for its success.

Launched in late 1988, the campaign sought to demonstrate how a new social concept -- the "designated driver" -- could be rapidly diffused through American society via mass communication, importing the concept from Scandinavia and catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms relating to driving-after-drinking. Such a shift was essential for curbing alcohol-related traffic fatalities, the leading cause of death among young adults aged 15-24 in the U.S. Through this initiative, the Harvard School of Public Health became the architect of the "U.S. Designated Driver Campaign". All major Hollywood studios participated along with the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks.

The project broke new ground when TV writers agreed to insert drunken driving prevention messages, including frequent references to designated drivers, into scripts of top-rated television programs, such as "Cheers," "L.A. Law," and "The Cosby Show." Entertainment not only mirrors social reality, but also helps shape it by depicting what constitutes popular opinion, by influencing people's perceptions of the roles and behaviors that are appropriate to members of a culture, and by modeling specific behaviors. The strength of this approach is that short messages, embedded within dialogue, are casually presented by characters who serve as role models within a dramatic context, facilitating social learning. The project's strategy was endorsed in a unanimous resolution of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West. Over a four-year period, more than 160 prime-time programs incorporated sub-plots, scenes, and dialogue on the subject, including frequent references to the use of designated drivers.

At Harvard's request, ABC, CBS, and NBC also aired frequent public service announcements (PSAs) during prime time encouraging the use of designated drivers. This was the first time that the three networks produced and sponsored simultaneous campaigns with the same message. Harvard's public relations activities further reinforced the campaign, generating extensive news coverage. According to industry estimates, the campaign received over $100 million each year in network air time.

The campaign soon became transformed into a national movement as a broad range of prominent individuals (e.g., President George Bush, President Bill Clinton, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop); government agencies (e.g., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention); national organizations and advocacy groups (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving); professional sports leagues (e.g., Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association); major corporations (e.g., State Farm Insurance); leading police departments; and brewers and distillers endorsed and promoted the designated driver concept.

"Designated driver" became a household phrase in the U.S. to such an extent that the term appeared in the 1991 Random House Webster's College Dictionary. Public opinion polls documented the rapid, wide acceptance and strong popularity of the designated driver concept. According to the Roper Poll, the proportion of Americans serving as a designated driver reached 37% in 1991. Among Americans under the age of 30, 52% had actually been a designated driver. Among frequent drinkers, 54% had been driven home by a designated driver. By 1998, according to the Roper Poll, a majority of adults who drink had served as a designated driver and/or been driven home by one. Among frequent drinkers who consumed five or more drinks in the past seven days, 62% had served as a designated driver and/or been driven home by one.

When the campaign began in late 1988, annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities stood at 23,626. By 1994, fatalities had declined by 30%. A variety of factors were responsible for this striking progress, including intensive publicity, new laws, and strict enforcement.

Why did the Designated Driver campaign succeed?

  1. The campaign's message was narrowly focused, highly specific, and easily communicated. We did not attempt to take on the entirety of alcohol use and abuse in American society. Rather, we took a highly complex problem, broke it down into separate, manageable components, and selected one component where there seemed to be a meaningful opportunity to achieve change at the time.
  2. The campaign's message called for only a modest shift in behavior. The message was not anti-alcohol. It said, "If you drink, take your turn as the Designated Driver."
  3. Instead of a negative message ("Don't drink and drive"), the campaign promoted a positive, empowering message ("The Designated Driver is the Life of the Party.")
  4. There was a broad social consensus about the need to address the problem of drunken driving, and there were no economic interests opposing the campaign; the alcoholic beverage industry gets a black eye from drunken driving, so they supported the effort.
  5. The timing was right. Mothers Against Drunken Driving (MADD) had spent eight years building a foundation of public understanding, concern, and support. So, the general public was primed and ready to respond. On the other hand, media attention to the problem had declined sharply by 1988 and there was a need for a fresh, new idea to rejuvenate the anti-drunken driving movement.
  6. It was a relatively easy step for the Hollywood creative community to support the campaign. Writers were already depicting alcohol use, so it didn't take much heavy lifting to insert a reference to driving in connection with drinking. The Designated Driver message could be incorporated with a line or two of dialogue, and did not require major changes in character development or the story line.
  7. The issue of drunken driving hit close to home for many members of the Hollywood community whose teenage children were potentially at risk. And, for many others in the creative community, alcoholism had touched the lives of a family member or friend; they were eager to help address any aspect of alcohol abuse. The issue had personal relevance for them.
  8. The campaign had the strong, sustained support of a leading member of the Hollywood community--Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC and a prominent TV producer--who was held in enormously high regard by his peers. The campaign assembled an Advisory Board of key individuals in the Hollywood community, who were recruited with Grant Tinker's leadership, to provide ready access to a broad array of directors, writers, producers, and actors who could help the campaign. The campaign also won formal endorsements from the boards of the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild.
  9. The campaign did not rely on the intermediary of a public relations agency, which might have diminished the effort's credibility. Harvard staff spent 25 work weeks in Hollywood meeting individually with 250 key people in the Hollywood community. The campaign asked for Hollywood's support, but didn't demand it, and was deeply respectful of the community's core value of creative freedom.
  10. To capture and sustain the attention and interest of the creative community, the campaign employed a dozen different tactics to follow-up after face-to-face meetings. Without a steady drumbeat of messaging directed at Hollywood, the odds were low that supportive members of the creative community would remember to act on their stated intentions.

Notwithstanding the progress achieved to date, some 13,000 people will lose their lives this year in an alcohol-related crash. So, if you plan to drink on New Year's Eve, make sure you choose a Designated Driver who doesn't drink at all. And, don't be shy about intervening to stop a friend or relative from driving after drinking. You could save a life.