Prevention by Intimidation

February 10, 2012 § Leave a comment

When we moved to Utah, one of the first things I noticed were the anti-underage drinking billboards. These billboards really disturbed me, and I thought a lot about why I found this ad campaign so offensive. I realized it is because of how completely negative the signs are. In communication, we often say, “Don’t lead with the negative” and these signs are doing just that.

The first thing that struck me about these ads is the juxtaposition of the smirking officers next to intimidating/threatening phrases in bold typography. While the officers claim they participated in the ads because “We just want to help the kids” (read the whole article here), I am not convinced by what is visually communicated. The officers look like they find catching underage drinkers enjoyable. And, with all the recent events in which police officers have positioned themselves less as protectors of society and more as against society (the UC Davis pepper spray incident comes to mind), it seems there might be a better way to communicate the danger of underage drinking.  Additionally, it is a bit coincidental that while the men in the billboards “weren’t chosen for their size,” the officers pictured are 6’11”, 335lbs and 6’1″, 225lbs, contributing to the intimidation factor. I have a hard time believing a smaller male or (gasp) a female officer would have even been considered for this ad campaign.

While these signs may be intimidating and effective in preventing underage drinking, they are also contributing to a polarization between police and youth. (Ideally, there would be a relationship of respect for authority and an understanding that ultimately police are here to protect us.) In the end, though, despite how offended I am by the billboards and the campaign, I do not have a ready alternative. I do not think a campaign with police officers saying “Don’t drink underage, because we care about you” would work, either. Oh, the woes of communication.

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