A Powerful Lesson That Will Surely be Forgotten

By Published on .

* Don't talk to strangers.

* Don't run with scissors.

* Don't swim after eating.

* Don't play with matches.

Eighty percent of the basic parental-warning playbook is proscriptive. The last of the Listen to Mommy and Daddy Big Five stands out because it is a positive assertion of safe behavior:

* Look both ways before crossing.

No. 5 also stands out for frequently yielding the most adorable displays of kiddie caution-hyper-slow, hyper-attentive exercises in street crossing as the child shows how much she has taken the safety issue to heart. We personally have missed entire halves of key NFL games during the long, deliberate walk back from the playground. ("No, sweetheart, I think you can go now. That car is headed the other way. And it's parked.")

So if 3-year-olds can grasp and internalize the basic rules of safety, why in the United Kingdom do 55 teenagers a week get struck by automobiles?

The answer, of course, is the same reason that even the most well-behaved tykes get struck by autos, or impaled with scissors or burned playing with matches: When children small and large get distracted or excited, they tend to forget even the lessons most drummed into them. A predator cruising by with a photo of a supposed lost puppy can even make them, in their zeal to help, forget not to talk to strangers.

Thus can childish enthusiasm, so often a joy to behold, have a tragic double edge.

So the real question becomes, having instilled the proper lessons, is there anything the world of grownups can do to defeat the impulses that defeat the lessons? And is one of those things advertising?

The British Department for Transport thinks the answer is yes. A TV/online spot depicts four teenagers clowning with a cellphone camera on a pubic thoroughfare, with horrifying consequences. They are having so much fun adoring one another and mugging to the lens that they venture into the street without looking and one of them is run over.

If this were a traditional PSA, shot on film and slickly edited, the reaction to the slice of death would be predictable: 15 million British teenagers rolling their eyes. But here's the gimmick: Leo Burnett, London, employed third-screen verite. The whole spot is shot as if captured by the kids' cellphone itself. It's grainy, pixilated-and very, very arresting.

The clowning looks real. The hugging and squealing looks real. The accident looks all too real. To watch this spot, in all its rawness, is to die a little yourself.

So will it raise awareness of juvenile incautiousness? Of course it will. Will it stimulate parents to remind their kids of Rule No. 5? Of course it will. Will teenagers themselves be shocked into thinking about how, but for the grace of God, the victim could be them? Of course they will.

Will lives be saved?

Of course they won't.

The very premise of this spots attests to its own futility. The vignette documents how kids get so lost in their fun they lose the basic safety awareness that has been inculcated in them from the time they learned to walk. It's not that they flout the rule; they simply lose track of their surroundings.

Exactly. You can raise awareness about lack of awareness, but you can't mitigate it. The treatment for the condition requires the absence of the condition itself-which is inherently contradictory and therefore optimistic even by advertising standards.

This is a very clever ad that will be deservedly lauded for its intentions and its technique. It is also demonstrably, and tragically, a complete waste of time.

Review: 2.5 stars

Ad: British Department of Transport

Agency: Leo Burnett

Location: London
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