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Advertising Does Its Part in War on Terror

MTA's 'See Something, Say Something' Campaign Helps Thwart Times Square Bombing Attempt

By Published on .

SPEAK: The MTA's PSA campaign is being licensed throughout the world.
SPEAK: The MTA's PSA campaign is being licensed throughout the world.


NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- As Lance Orton -- the Vietnam vet turned sidewalk vendor who alerted police to a bomb-filled SUV parked in New York's Times Square in the early morning hours of May 2 -- made his way through a swarm of reporters, he was asked to share a comment with the public about his heroic efforts.

The reply was simple: "See something, say something."

It would be any marketer's dream. Mr. Orton was reciting part of the tagline of the Metropolitan Transit Authority's security campaign, launched after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to remind New Yorkers to stay vigilant about unattended packages and suspicious behavior on public transportation.

"I would be lying if I told you that I knew it would be as wildly successful as it's been," said Christopher P. Boylan, deputy exec-director for corporate and community affairs at the MTA, of the campaign. "There's nothing better we could hope for than the attention it's gotten in the last week."

Mr. Boylan works on marketing efforts for the transit system and, for him, the incident was a reminder of "the brilliance of a good tagline." And exposure. The ads have blanketed New York City buses, subways and trains since 2003.

The campaign was conceived by New York-based Korey Kay & Partners, a 34-person shop that has handled all consumer advertising and media-buying duties for the MTA since 1992.

The agency has introduced the system's fare cards and updates about the transit system that it calls "SubTalk." But its most important contribution is the "If you see something, say something," phrase, which was the brainchild of Allen Kay, the agency's chairman-CEO. His inspiration? "Probably one of the best-known slogans came out during World War II, before I was born: 'Loose lips sink ships,'" Mr. Kay said. "I wanted to create a 21st-century version of that, but exactly the opposite: to keep your mouth open."

While Mr. Kay was eager to push out a campaign right in the aftermath of the attacks, the MTA thought it was too soon. "They were concerned, rightly so, that there might be a backlash, and people might be discouraged from taking mass transit, that they might be scared." After conducting a series of focus groups to see how people reacted to the phrase, it was rolled out in early 2003.

Many iterations
Seven years later, "If you see something, say something" has been through many iterations -- some ads with just copy, others with images of the types of things the public should be on the lookout for and still others featuring pictures of the MTA's sniffer dogs.

The campaign is also remarkable for living relatively offline, with ads appearing largely in local print and outdoor, and in a few flights of local TV (they are currently in production for another wave right now).

"One of the reasons we love in-system advertising is we are talking to our customers and only our customers," said Mr. Kay. To date, thousands of people (this reporter included) have phoned into tip lines and alerted uniformed officers to suspicious activities on account of the MTA's call to action, making it -- along with the likes of famous campaigns like "Take a Bite out of Crime" and "Got Milk?" -- a public-service effort for the textbooks. The MTA trademarked the phrase in 2005 but licenses it for use here in the U.S. and internationally without charge for public-safety campaigns.

"It's a very appropriate, relevant and efficient message," said Peggy Conlon, president-CEO of the Ad Council, the leading producer of PSA's for the past several decades. "It really speaks to the fact that if you give people something very specific and concrete to do, they will respond -- we've seen this over the years with various campaigns, such as 'Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk,' where what you're asking [something that] might not be an easy thing to do, but if you can break through with a message like that, you are giving people permission to get over the fact that it's awkward."

She added that the key to a winning PSA campaign is "to be very consistent and supportive over time -- and the MTA has done that."

Michael Petti, a commenter on the MTA's official Facebook page, put it this way: "It is an excellent phrase of alliterative public awareness. One of the MTA's finer moments."

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