safety ads a stronghold of ambiguity

When the government tries to tell Yukoners not to hurt themselves, clarity doesn't appear to be a priority.

When the government tries to tell Yukoners not to hurt themselves, clarity doesn’t appear to be a priority.

For the last three weeks, Whitehorse’s “Smart Risk, Stupid Risk” billboards have been yet another mystifying attempt to keep us out of the emergency room.

And we thought we were finally used to vague public safety advertising.

After all, we’ve already endured the “Stop Pushing, I’m Busy” campaign, currently emblazoning the sides of Whitehorse transit buses.

In them, an abstract human form is shown in some sort of agonized contortion screaming the words, “Stop pushing; I’m busy.”

Apparently, the human form is too “busy” to engage in substance abuse—and readers should emulate the busy-ness.

The recently wrapped-up “I love (insert activity here) too much to get injured at work” was slightly better.

Yukoners were pictured engaging in fun activities along with the caveat that these fun activities would cease were the people to become injured at work.

A worthy message, although for Porter Creek and Copper Ridge commuters, it’s still hard to forget the Two Mile Hill billboard of a glassy-eyed hunter leveling his rifle at traffic while declaring that he loved hunting “too much” to get injured at work.

The Smart Risk/Stupid Risk campaign presents the reader with two options.

One billboard features a well-harnessed man flying a hang-glider: smart risk.

Next to him, the stupid risk: two children jumping on a backyard trampoline, their faces pixilated to avoid identification.

Trampolines are, in fact, more dangerous than hang gliding.

Even with a netted enclosure, trampolines are reviled by doctors as a leading cause of broken necks, spinal cord injuries and disabling head traumas.

You can be forgiven if you didn’t glean that from two disparate black-and-white photos on Main Street.

Another contrasts a helmeted skateboarder with a middle-aged man cutting wood with a chain saw.

(For the next round of ads, perhaps they could feature a surfer contrasted with a Yukon motorist squinting at an ambiguous billboard.)

So what’s the point of all these building-mounted puzzles? Extreme sports: good. Everyday activities: bad?

The thrust of the campaign, explains Yukon chief medical officer of health Brendan Hanley, is to highlight the danger of ordinary activities.

Extreme activities rarely land someone in the emergency room.

“We don’t see too many professional mountain bikers in the emergency room,

However, injuries from chain saws, lawn mowers and trampolines are frequent.

It all comes down to approach.

A mountain climber is unlikely to scale Mount Logan wearing only a pair of cowboy boots and a jock strap.

By contrast, each year dozens of Yukoners mount speeding motor bikes wearing only a pair of flip flops and a beer T-shirt.

Or they cut the lawn in bare feet.

Or slice a bagel while gripping it with the other hand.

“We tend to think of extreme activities as those in which we’re going to see injuries—but the point is: whatever the activity, you make the appropriate preparations,” said Hanley.

“Do you know how to use a chainsaw? Is it maintained? Have you thought about protecting your ears, your eyes, your feet?” he said.

With an estimated 99 per cent of all injuries being preventable, it’s obvious that some caution is in order.

Still, glimpsing a smiling, helmet-less couple on a motorbike (stupid risk) is unlikely to prompt your average Yukoner to suddenly gain respect for their own body.

Ambiguity, in this campaign’s case, was actually intentional, explained Hanley.

By confusing the public, they’re much more likely to bring it up with their friends—and prompt a healthy debate on safety, he said.

“If something’s a bit too easy then it doesn’t really make an impact,” said Hanley.

Sample conversation:

“Hey Jim, did you see that confusing ad on Main St.? Does it mean I should take up hang gliding?”

“Well Bill, what the ad is clearly trying to convey is that trampolines are a leading cause of injury, whilst hang gliding is not, since proponents of the latter take adequate safety precautions.”

Frustrate the public enough, and they might put their heads together to do the right thing.

Maybe the ad campaign could contrast two activities that are remotely related to each other.

Keep the old man recklessly cutting wood, fine, but next to him, showcase a similar old man safely cutting wood.

Contrast clear. Confusion unnecessary. Let’s all go out and safely cut some wood.

Northern Ireland, unlike the Yukon, has no problem delivering clear public messages.

“The Faster the Speed, the Bigger the Mess,” was the country’s 2008 anti-speeding campaign.

One ad shows a pair of Irish 20-somethings accidentally veering their speeding sedan into a couple of schoolchildren.

As the camera fades out, the children are shown dangling from a nearby tree as the 20-somethings scream with horror.

Maybe a bit too extreme, but you see the point.

Cost of the Smart Risk/Stupid Risk campaign?

“It’s way less than the cost of one serious head injury,” said Hanley. (Tristin Hopper)