Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Niceway Code - a failure of advertising

A lot has already been written about the nicewaycode campaign currently being run in Scotland. Some of the best pieces about how this campaign fails can be found here, here and here. There are many more though. It’s an insidious, victim-blaming campaign that has rightly made cyclists furious. It has, therefore, surely failed in its aims if only because of the way it has alienated such a large segment of its stated audience. That’s what I am interested in, as a digital marketing professional. How does a campaign like this fail? What’s the process, and what could or should have been done differently? Of course, a lot of what I write will be supposition. I don’t know the process this piece of work went through, but I’ve worked on enough campaigns (including some government ones) to have a rough idea.

A couple of things to get straight first: this campaign was almost certainly not produced directly by a government department, as some people seem to assume. Just as in the private sector, government departments outsource all but the most straightforward communications work to agencies. In this case, it seems, an agency called ‘Newhaven Communications' based in Edinburgh. They claim to be interested in 'creating ideas that people talk about and share'. That's the usual ad agency bollocks for what is in fact a process as old as the industry itself. I summarise it (very simplistically) here because it will help illustrate some of the points of failure on this campaign:

  • Take a brief from a client (and/or work with them to produce a suitable brief)
  • Conduct research. Which leads to:
  • A strategy. Which leads to:
  • A creative concept. Which leads to:
  • Final work (banners, TV ads, press ads, etc.) 
  • Media buy. Getting the work infront of the right people.

So how did this all go so wrong for Newhaven?

The brief

Getting the right brief out of the client is as important as the rest of the work. Private sector clients will sometimes give you a lot of flexibility, public sector clients often have a very clear idea of what they are trying to achieve and how success will be measured. That’s a good thing, but it’s still worth interrogating the brief. You remember how children sometimes keep asking ‘why?’ until you can’t really answer anymore? Something like that ought to be done with briefs. e.g.

"We want 18-24 year olds to engage with our new widget factfinder"


"So they understand the capabilities of our widgets."


"So they will see how the widgets can help them"


"So we will sell more widgets."

That’s usually the point with private sector clients. It doesn’t mean that the original goal was invalid, but it’s important to tie it back to the real goal which is selling more. Sometimes, though, it’s at this point that you realise that 18-24 year olds don’t actually have enough money to buy your widgets, so targeting them with your widget factfinder might be a waste of time.

Something similar could have been (and should have been, and probably wasn’t) done here. 

"We want a road safety campaign focused on how cars and cyclists interact" (or something like that)


"To encourage all road users to drive/ride safely and legally."


"To reduce the number of crashes"


"To reduce the number of deaths and injures."

In this case, that final point is the only one that really matters. No matter how you wrap it up, the only important objective of this campaign should be to reduce deaths and injuries. Stopping cyclists going through red lights or stopping cars overtaking dangerously are just the means to an end. (You could argue there is a second objective to make inexperienced cyclists feel safe on the road, but that would be achieved by the same means as reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries, so I think the point stands). 

Why does this matter? Because if Newhaven had got the brief down to this key point, it’s hard to see how they would have come up with the campaign that they did. Pedestrians and cyclists cause almost no deaths or injuries to anyone except themselves and, even then, are not actually at fault the majority of the time. So a campaign that, as nicewaycode themselves put it, is intended to remind people of “some simple rules we can all follow to make it safer for everyone out there” (my emphasis) is flawed to begin with and is wasting 2/3rd of its effort on a target audience that have no impact on the brief - just like the widget factfinder is wasted on 18-24 year olds if they can’t afford to buy them. Yes, there is an argument for teaching vulnerable road users how to avoid themselves suffering death or injury, but that is (or should be) a totally separate campaign with a very different tone. 

The strategy

In marketing-speak we sometimes talk about coming up with a consumer insight or, for those particularly impressed by their own genius, ‘a killer insight’. These are often far more banal than such terminology suggests, but the theory is that after sifting through the brief, the research, the focus group results, the qualitative and quantitative analysis, and so on, a good strategist or planner can come up with an insight into the market around which an effective campaign can be hung. Ideally, it needs to be something new and (if you’ll excuse me stating the blindingly obvious) insightful since, if it isn’t, there is little chance of the campaign itself being particularly novel or creative. 

A possible example is Jif peanut butter’s “choosy mums buy Jif” campaign, which is based on the insight that a large part of their target market is mothers buying for their children, and they always want the best for their kids. It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s a good example of using an insight to go beyond the obvious product benefit statement “Jif peanut butter is better than other brands” and find a message that speaks to the consumer.

I don’t know if Newhaven used this approach or, if they did, what insight they came up with, but I have a feeling of how it might have gone based on the result. I suspect they held some focus groups, presumably with drivers, cyclists and pedestrians (although quite how they classified them I don’t know, since all drivers and cyclists are also pedestrians, and most cyclists are also drivers. Never mind though.) and they got pretty much the sort of comments that you’d get if you took any mixed group of people in a pub and spoke to them about road safety regarding cyclists:

- Cyclists running red lights is annoying
- Some cyclists breaking rules gives everyone a bad name
- Cars don’t leave enough space when overtaking
- Cyclists don’t signal
- Cyclists need to be more visible
- Cars drive too quickly around cyclists
- Cyclists get aggressive towards drivers
- Drivers get aggressive towards cyclists
- Some people drive/cycle well
- Some people drive/cycle badly

and so on. 

The ‘insight’ they took from this seems, from their blog, to have been something like

"road users are not strongly pro- or anti-cyclist and will, if pushed, admit to sometimes driving badly. They want all road users to get along better".

This is a really crappy insight which just feeds back exactly what they were told in the focus groups (a common issue with relying too much on focus groups, as this campaign seems to have) and goes a long way to explaining why the resulting campaign is so lacklustre. It in no way tackles the key brief of reducing death and injury unless you seriously believe, as Newhaven seem to, that poor courtesy leads to death and injury. If they’d taken the same information and drilled a bit deeper, and been a bit more ready not to take the focus groups’ statements at face value, but critique them in search of a decent insight, they might have got something like:

Most drivers don’t dislike people on cycles but they don’t understand them. They see them as a separate breed of road user who behave in a confusing and sometimes irritating way.

That could be a fairly interesting insight, and potentially the basis for a strong road safety campaign, with a focus on humanising cyclists (“people on bikes”) and explaining the dangers and complications they face, because of their mode of transport, that drivers may not be familiar with or fully appreciate, and how that leads to actions that may irritate drivers.

Anyway, I am neither a strategist nor a planner (I’m a Project Manager, as it happens) but I am sure that Newhaven has them, and they could have come up with something a bit less bland than the nicewaycode, and something that actually spoke to their target market. It’s all very well to say, as they do, that people react badly to ads that criticise them. That may be true, but it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work - just look at some of the hard-hitting smoking, drinking and road-safety campaigns that we and other countries have conducted over the years. In fact, here’s another insight for you: people sometimes react with anger to criticism to hide feelings of guilt or shame when they secretly know the criticism has merit.


The creative

One thing worth considering here is the budget. A few people on twitter have been quoting numbers in the region of £450,000 for this campaign. I don’t know exactly where that came from but, assuming it’s true, I strongly suspect that this represents a total campaign spend including media. That’s important to remember, in the interests of fairness, because generally with a campaign like this media spend (the cost of placing your creative: e.g. the cost of a billboard for two weeks, or a 30 second tv spot every evening for a month, or whatever it might be) is a huge percentage of the total budget. I don’t know what the actual production cost would have been, but it could have been as little as 10% of this, or perhaps as much as 25%. 

I say this only because I think it’s fair to remember that the full £450k probably hasn’t been spent solely on producing the TV ads and out-of-home media that we’ve seen so far. That’s a good thing, as if it had been I’d suggest that someone should be asking for their money back.

Other bloggers, including those linked at the top of this post, have already dissected why the TV ads are dreadful, so I don’t particularly want to re-hash that. I’m more interested, as I said, about how they got to this point. As with this whole campaign, the creative seems to be a simple case of blindly feeding the focus groups’ thoughts back to us with only the barest hint of value-added consideration or creativity. The TV ad aimed at cyclists simply parrots back the hackneyed, victim-blaming idea that one cyclist running a red light gives ‘all cyclists a bad name’ (and how, by the way, does this tie back to what should have been our brief - reducing deaths and injuries?). It adds in an old Monty Python joke about ‘bad names’ which might possibly serve to make the ad more memorable, but really seems to do nothing but disguise how simplistic and pointless the ad is. The ad aimed at drivers is almost as bad. About 70% of it consists of a bad joke, and the ultimate ‘punchline’ is based on the questionable premise that drivers treat horses with any more respect than they do cyclists. That sounds precisely like the sort of idea that popped up in a focus group or creative brainstorm and was subject to absolutely zero scrutiny. It doesn’t make sense, it’s statistically flawed, and it doesn’t make any effort to go beneath the surface and look at why drivers might treat cyclists this way, and speak to the cause rather than the symptom. When I dealt with a government client, they were very specific that they wanted their campaign to create a long-term change in mindset, not a short-term change in behaviour. It’s a pity that this campaign wasn’t briefed in with a similar message. 

The one out of home ad I’ve seen so far, designed to go on the back of a bus, is so confusing as to be outright dangerous. Was it subject to any kind of legal approval process? The message, that passing large vehicles on the left is dangerous, is sound in theory. But imagine, for an instant, an inexperienced cyclist traveling down a reasonably safe cycle path placed (as almost all are) to the left of the main carriageway. Ahead of them, they see that bus. Is it possible that, confused, they might attempt to move across the lane of traffic and pass the bus on the right, potentially a very dangerous manoeuvre especially on a single-carriageway? And what about the patronising ‘if you must’ that ‘allows’ passing to the right? Is this supposed to be funny? If it is, then it is yet another case where what seemed funny in the confines of a creative meeting suddenly seems less funny when you’re on a bike, in traffic, trying to get round a bus without being killed.

Being killed. Because, let’s not forget, that’s what this campaign ought to be about. Cyclists getting killed if they, or a driver, make a mistake. Newhaven seem to have forgotten this in their desperation to be quirky, funny and ‘nice’. 

The response

[Update: I assumed in the section below that Newhaven were running the engagement as well, but in fact this may not be the case. I’ve since been told that the blog and responses might be being done by Transport Scotland. It doesn’t make too much difference, as it’s the main campaign concept that is really what I was interested in, but it’s as well to be accurate!]

The response (by Newhaven, I mean) hasn’t been universally dreadful. They’ve made some effort to engage with criticism on their blog, on other blogs, on twitter and on Facebook. Their (perhaps reasonable) policy of pre-moderating comments has led a lot of people to feel censored, and that’s always dangerous, but it feels as if they’ve been doing their best.

The trouble is that, perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s no hint of an admission that they may have got it wrong. When criticised, they’ve insisted that their approach is what the focus groups wanted (no doubt true, but every ad-man worth his salt knows that giving the market what the focus group wanted is often a recipe for disaster), argued that the data supports their approach (without releasing any of the data), or fallen back on the sightly pathetic point that surely getting people to obey the law and treat each other with respect can’t be a bad thing. Well, yes, it can, when it encourages victim-blaming and perpetuates the idea that the mildly inconsiderate and occasionally unlawful behaviour of a handful of cyclists has anything to do with the lethally dangerous behaviour of a number of drivers. 

I’m not sure what Newhaven should do next. No agency wants to admit to their client that they messed up, especially not once most of the money is already gone, so its most likely they’ll stick their heads in the sand, carry on re-tweeting the positive stories, and find a way to convince everyone that it’s all been a big success. Perhaps they’ll win an award.

A really brave agency, though, might be able to snatch success from this by admitting where they’ve gone wrong, and using all the (currently fairly negative) engagement and noise they’ve built up behind this campaign to crowd-source something better. 


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