You Can Learn A Lot From A Dummy

Welcome to Modern Retro PR, where each week I plan to analyze two campaigns–one modern and one retro–and find the similarities and see how it worked (or didn’t). Hi! I’m Lesley and I’m a nationally award-winning Accredited in Public Relations practitioner with more than 15 years experience in broadcast journalism and public relations. For as long as I can remember, I have been drawn to the craft of writing and storytelling. As an elementary student, I could not wait for Fridays to watch 20/20. Seriously.

I’ll use this blog to explore issues of strategic communication and emerging media and you can find it at Since earning my accreditation in 2013, I have become increasingly thirsty to learn more about the topics which prepared me to successfully earn this designation. Because I work school PR where few in my organization really understand what I even do, I’m looking for folks with whom I can delve deeper on topics like strategic communication, diffusions of innovation, communication models and theories, social media as part of a communications response, and the like.

My favorite PR topic of all is the Four-Step Process (Research, Planning, Implementation and Evaluation). I will gladly partner with anyone who wants to use this approach to accomplish their goals. Admittedly, I get frustrated by being handed a list of tactics to implement which there is no research to suggest the tactics are even needed.

Now that I have your attention, I want to share with you what I learned from a dummy.


My grade school summers were filled with memories of carefree car rides to visit family or go on a vacation. I remember riding in cars with relatives who would throw an arm across to protect a passenger from flying into the dashboard upon a hard stop. I even remember a car trip to Disney where I convinced my little sister to lay in the floorboard of the back seat so she could have more room. While my rose-colored tint makes it sound idyllic, to me, it now sounds idiotic that no one was wearing seatbelts.

Enter these two dummies:

The Ad Council’s “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign ran from 1985-1999, urging people to buckle their seatbelts. Prior to the campaign, social custom at the time was that you didn’t wear seatbelts: “while 80% of Americans believed seat belts work, only 11% regularly used them.” According to the Diffusions of Innovations Theory, the Ad Council, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, served as the change agents in this effort.


The mass media campaign was catchy and slowly people began to change their behavior and buckle up; however, it took time. The key to early adoption was pediatricians. I remember the campaign but doubt it did more than just raised awareness about the issue for me personally. What did it for me was the interpersonal network of which I was a part, along with my mom and my pediatrician.  I recall a childhood checkup with my pediatrician where he talked to my mom and me about seatbelt safety; he encouraged the use of seatbelts and reminded my mom to wear hers. Year after year I heard this same speech.


He was an opinion leader. He believed seatbelts could keep me safe, and he empowered me to hold the adults in my life accountable for buckling up before driving through homophily. What parent wants to look bad in their child’s eyes?  I couldn’t drive, but I could motivate others. It didn’t take long before buckling up was the new normal: the innovation of seatbelt usage had been adopted by the entire family.


While some of the change was motivated by those interpersonal interactions, there is no doubt that the mass media effort persuaded lawmakers. Results from the Advertising Education Foundation show a near quadrupling of the number of states which enacted seatbelt legislation by 1989.



I’m a busy mom with young children and a messy vehicle that looks we have just come from a hiking trip: dry cereal and chocolate candies dot the floor board of my backseat (nevermind the two weren’t brought in at the same time!). For the record: We. Don’t. Hike.

Lately, here’s the ad I feel like I see most of these days for the last couple of weeks:

Here again, another mass media campaign. This one directed to the very same people the retro campaign targeted so many years ago (folks like me!). However, the muscle that makes this spot work leverages the interpersonal relationship that happens each morning in my car with my kids.

I’ll admit it: my car seems this way as we get on the road in the mornings. But the greater point of this ad is to leverage parent power with the control in your hand: a key in the ignition. While the original campaign enjoyed success, the evidence suggests there was still work to be done. As a former anchor/reporter, I read countless stories where someone died as a result of not wearing a seatbelt in a crash. Nowadays, the social custom is for kids to hop in a car with a device and forgo a seatbelt.  This new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign aims to address the high number of American children who died as part of vehicle crashes and were unrestrained at the time of their death.

Because the “You Could Learn A Lot From A Dummy” campaign resonated with me as a child, I would consider myself an early adopter of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign. Unlike the precursor campaign, the mass media extends beyond just radio and television. New media technologies like websites, social media and Youtube play prominently in the diffusion of the innovation of Round Two of the campaign.

Honestly, my kids know no other way other than to buckle up when they hop in the car. However, this spot does provide the opportunity for me to have a conversation with my kids about the message.

Their awareness of the need to buckle up in mommy’s car was already there, but I believe this campaign offers them the chance to adopt or reject this innovation for themselves. Recognizing that their behavior motivates me to action, my one child who just a few months ago, relished the idea of being the last to buckle up, is now the first.

Innovation: adopted.

Final Thoughts.

These two campaigns clearly demonstrate the strategy behind the communications effort as the issue to increase seatbelt usage has been part of the national dialogue for nearly thirty years. The first campaign was lauded for the increase in seat belt usage and even garnered awards.

The current campaign is an example of the Diffusion of Innovation as the key message  of the original effort was refined, or diffused, over the years. There are few metrics (beyond outputs) to measure the effectiveness of the new “Seat Belt Safety” campaign at this time.

While the tipping point for me (and my family) was reached years ago, the journey is apparently not over for the current population. Buckle up; it could be a long ride until we get there.

Which campaign motivated your behavior change: Modern or Retro?

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