April 12, 2010

A message with both kinds of impact

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When a message delivers, it can hit you subtly a minute or two later, sinking into your brain with a slow realization. Or it can slam into you like a ton of bricks.

Analyzing this public service announcement using my six favorite principles of sticky messages, SUCCESs (from Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick), let's talk about why this ad is so powerful.


Three people sitting in a living room are the actors. A small table holding a bowl of glitter is the only prop. There is no dialogue, and very little movement. There is no clutter, no distraction from the message.


Never in a million years would I have guessed that this man would be "saved" by a human seat belt made by his wife and daughter. This highly effective approach was surprising and creative.


I didn't need any help to understand what was going on. The pantomime was as clear as day; the "seat belt" completely obvious with no explanation needed.


The ad was credible to me because I've been in car accidents before -- as I'm guessing many of us have. We all know the importance of seat belts, but that doesn't mean everyone is wearing one. The scene was made to mimic what happens in a car accident, and we all know what that looks like.


There's no doubt that emotion plays the biggest part in making this ad effective. Can anyone watch this and not experience the fear, dread and then relief painted on the actors' faces? I've watched it four or five times now, and every time I still get choked up. At first, the laughter and smiling seem over the top and almost contrived, but it turns out to be a fabulous contrast for the moments to come.

The slow motion, the widening eyes, the fairy-winged girl descending like an angel, the musical crescendo, the implied physical impact, the human seat belt that metamorphoses into a family embrace, and the falling glitter all combine to create a wrenching emotional scene.


This is not only a pantomime of a person surviving a car crash. There's also a story of a family here. I believe the story is ambiguous enough that each of us can make our own meaning, a clever method in advertising.

I see a typical happy family that will be destroyed if seat belt warnings are not heeded. I see a father who lives for his family. I see a mother and daughter who will do anything for dad. The slogan, "Embrace Life," also implies that your seat belt is like a warm embrace by people who care about you.

This short commercial says everything it needs to say without being preachy, without having to spell out the lessons learned. There are no statistics, there are no facts and figures. It's a simple pantomimed scene of near-devastating consequences, and that says it all.

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