SMASHING SAFETY ADS ARE BOTH REFRESHING AND BLUNTLY EFFECTIVE

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After serious deliberation on the matter, Portugese government officials have determined that they'd prefer their motorcycle-riding citizens not sustain fatal brain injuries on the nation's highways. So they hired EPG/ TBWA, Lisbon, to come up with a public service announcement.

You can just imagine what it looked like: jumpy, monochrome images of an accident scene, body bags. That sort of thing.

PSAs, after all, tend to be sober and ominous. As a rule they are treated with respectful grimness, because some people just don't feel they can be clever and whimsical about head trauma. Or AIDS, homelessness, illiteracy or any of the death, disease and misery that constitutes the backdrop for most public-service advertising.

Yet it is that very ominousness that undercuts so many PSA messages attempting to modify behavior. When we are confronted with grisly or tragic worst-case scenarios, instead of internalizing the horror and vowing to change our ways, our tendency is to distance ourselves from the mortal possibilities. As in, "No, that stuff happens to other people."

Thus do attempts at triggering introspection so often trigger only denial. That's why, to penetrate the viewers' psychological defenses, it is often better to couch even dire warnings in light-hearted terms. And that is why EPG/TBWA didn't use cinema verite crash-scene footage after all. The result is the most amusing, and effective, anti-head-trauma spot we've seen in a good while.

The setting is a laboratory, where a nerdy scientist in a white coat and a very poor haircut stands at a countertop. Resting there, on his right, is a human skull. On his left: a black motorcycle helmet with faceguard.

"This is the skull like the skull of any biker," he says. "And this is a helmet like the helmet of any biker."

And even before he reaches beneath the countertop, we know what's going to happen. The skull and the helmet are both going to get whacked. Sure enough, he picks up a giant sledge hammer.

"And this," he goes on, "is an accident like any other accident."

Wham! He swings the hammer and pulverizes the skull in one stroke. Then-wham!-he also pounds the helmet. Naturally, it barely even shudders.

At this stage the viewer feels a bit smug. We have seen it coming, it came, and we were right. But we are also unimpressed, because it was all so obvious. So the guy whacked the helmet. Big deal.

Except it isn't over. Now the scientist lifts the helmet to reveal the head of a woozy but otherwise unscathed man poking through a hole in the counter.

"As you see," the scientist concludes, patting the groggy subject on his unpulverized head, "you'd better drive by the book."

This refers to the government highway safety slogan campaign, but the advice turns out to be ironic-and inspired. Had the agency gone by the book, trotting out the typical scare footage, we'd have probably tuned out.

Instead, we're lulled into suspending denial, and the message is pounded home with maximum impact. That of a sledge hammer.

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