The influence of the Crash Test Dummies Vince and Larry is hard to overstate. Twenty-five years after they rode off into the sunset, Vince and Larry still are celebrated for how many lives they, and their associated Ad Council campaign, saved. The importance of this campaign makes it critical to make notice of the safety PSAs that came before Vince and Larry. Long before they crashed into our living rooms for the first time, the Ad Council strove to protect Americans from accident misinformation. While not as successful as campaigns to come, the 1960s Safety Belt campaign served as an incubator for future ideas and practices. The earlier campaign’s shortcomings and setbacks laid the groundwork for the later transformative successes.
Lobbying the Lobbyists
Originally invented for aviation pursuits, the first factory seat restraint option in American automobiles was offered by Nash in 1949. Buyers did not enjoy using these early seat belts. Customers believed they were unsafe and uncomfortable.
Many consumers believed it was better to be ejected from a vehicle than remain in the passenger cabin. Studies done by Nash and Ford showed customers removed seat belts from vehicles in droves. As a result, other manufacturers, namely General Motors, considered the endeavor to be a waste of time and money.
Even at the Ad Council, there were concern that a seat belt campaign would prove to be as unpopular as seat belts themselves. As Leo Burnett, one of the directors of the Ad Council, stated in retrospect, “There were reservations as to how the [Ad] Council should proceed in this matter.” Since 1943, the Ad Council and several partner organizations had sponsored a campaign dedicated to accident prevention. In fact, sole purpose was to prevent accidents from occurring, not how to minimize injuries in the event of an accident (for more information on the early history of the campaign, please click this link). not merely want to add seat belts to the existing campaign–it wanted to devote all focus to seat belts.
This requested shift in focus raised several questions for the members of the Campaign Review Committee. While new car buyers would be able to take advantage of the hardware in their cars, what about those with pre-1962 model year vehicles? Would they be able to safely and economically retrofit seat belts in their vehicles? Otherwise, how much of an impact would a seat belt campaign have? Did it make sense to dedicate all of the Ad Council’s resources to a project with a limited target audience at the expense of the masses? Additionally, committee members were wary of the dissipation of gains made by the Highway Safety campaign’s emphasis on the enforcement of traffic laws. The Ad Council respected the desires of their partner, NSC, but did not believe that the time was right for such a change in the safety campaign’s messages.
On April 12, 1961, then-Executive Vice President of the National Safety Council General George C. Stewart spoke to the Ad Council Campaigns Review subcommittee to encourage this shift. He expressed appreciation for the Ad Council’s service and dedication to automotive safety. He stated NSC’s long-standing recommendation of the usage of seat belts and how their persistence was starting to bear fruit with automakers. Movers and shakers in Detroit had acquiesced to National Safety Council’s desires. Beginning with 1962 model year vehicles, all cars manufactured in America would come standard with seat belt latching points. That work would go to waste, however, if people were not aware of the benefits of seat belts. General Stewart, and by extension the National Safety Council, strongly believed in the power of advertising to create the necessary awareness. In the eyes of the National Safety Council, this was not something that could wait. Seat belts demanded the Traffic Safety campaign’s full attention. He ended his stump speech by saying that the National Safety Council would attempt to work out another theme with the Ad Council if seat belt safety was not implemented as they wished.
Once General Stewart ended his talk, members of the Campaign Review Committee began to express their concerns about such a quick overhaul of a long-standing campaign. After further discussion, the committee unanimously passed the following motion: “while the sole strategy of had been to prevent accidents, the emphasis should be broadened to save[ing] lives altogether. The Ad Council would continue to preach safe and legal driving habits while also encouraging seat belt usage to reduce the harm inflicted in the event of an accident.”
That being said, the committee still was concerned about potentially upsetting automotive manufacturing sponsors if the Ad Council acted without forewarning. The Board of Directors desired proof that such a move would not catch automakers off guard. The Council relied on the support of corporate partners to donate space and funds for programming; they were not in a position to directly influence their benefactors. With enough data and advertising, however, they could nudge those who did hold sway over automakers to act—the customer. Convince the public that seat belts were necessary, and hesitant automakers would be forced to offer them. If seat belts were readily available, reasonably priced, and relatively easy to install, what excuse would remain to automakers for not installing them? The NSC produced a veritable trove of studies, graphs, and (critically) advertising material for this revamp in time for the monthly Board of Directors which approved the proposal and promptly scheduled a joint press conference.
On June 27th, 1961, the Ad Council, National Safety Council, and the American Medical Association, alongside news outlets, gathered to announce a revamping of the Stop Accidents campaign. Ad Council President Theodore Repplier explained the necessity of this change with the following statement:
“When we started the Stop Accidents Campaign in 1945, the death rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 11.3. The rate last year was 5.3. While the National Safety Council has been most generous in citing the value of this campaign in helping to bring about this reduction, they are not satisfied and we are not satisfied as long as there are 38,000 people killed and almost one and a half million seriously injured in on our streets and highways.”
Although the Ad Council had done much to encourage safe driving habits while discouraging risky behaviors, traffic incidents are a fact of life as long as the human element remains a factor. As cars became bigger, faster and heavier, more needed to be done to protect passengers from their chrome-plated missiles. A driver could do everything right from taking precautions during inclement weather and only driving when in a condition to do so safely, but still be mangled by another driver’s mistakes.
Bumps in the Road
Divisions spread within the Safety Taskforce. The campaign languished in limbo, as some members did not want to dedicate Ad Council resources to a campaign that did not have the endorsement of its sponsoring agency. These members proposed a one to two year “holiday” on the campaign, while others, recognizing the importance of the campaign, pushed for its renewal. Even Howard Pyle expressed reservations on the continuance of the partnership after the campaign’s December 31st, 1964 expiration date.
Less than two months from deadline, Pyle wrote a letter expressing a change of heart. The National Safety Council definitely requested continuance if the campaign. The Ad Council agreed to extend the campaign for one year, contingent upon two conditions: that the NSC and Ad Council mutually agree upon a copy theme that the campaign group feels would be effective and the signing of an agreement upon communication policies and procedures to prevent tensions from rising in the future.
With these kinks ironed out the Seat Belt campaign soldiered on, outliving other campaigns, presidential administrations and even members of the Council’s Board of Directors. Finally, thirty years after its inception, the Stop Accidents/Seat Belt Safety campaign died a quiet death in 1974. With the end of the campaign, seat belt awareness and promotion would languish for an entire decade. By the time seat belt safety was resurrected in the 1980s, any noticeable gains made by the Council’s push had been eliminated. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 15 percent of Americans reported using seat belts while driving. For perspective, 1 out of every 7 ford buyers paid for the privilege of having seat belts in 1956.
Where Did It Go Wrong?
In the words of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, “the body politic, as well as the human body, begins to die as soon as it is born, and carries in itself the causes of its destruction.” The first iteration of the seat belt safety campaign died as a result of a flaw present at its creation–not enough people responsible for the campaign believed in it. The Council has always been at its most influential when selling ideas that they fully supported. Seat Belt Safety was born under a haze of apprehension and doubt. For once, it was the Council that needed to be sold on an idea.
They worried about losing hard-fought ground in automotive safety to promote a new and unpopular device. The seat belts in cars at the time were not the modern three-point harness with pretensioners, but lap belts akin to those used in school buses today. While these seat belts did save lives, people found these early models to be clunky and uncomfortable. It would have been an uphill battle with the full support of the Ad Council. Without it, making the campaign a success would have been Mission: Impossible.
By the time the National Safety Council pulled its funding from the campaign, its strongest supporters at the Council were no longer there to promote it. Leo Burnett passed away in 1971. H.T. Rowe died three months after the campaign was canceled. Theodore Repplier retired from the Council in 1966 and was in declining health. The Council searched for new sponsors for the campaign but came up empty-handed. Overloaded with campaign requests and underfunded to support it alone, the Ad Council had no other choice. Stop Accidents had effectively been orphaned, with no one stepping up to adopt the poor child.
The robustness of the NSC’s proposal also might have been its undoing. The campaign was the National Safety Council’s brainchild with the Ad Council taking a back seat. As then-President of the Ad Council Theodore Repplier said, it was in “full support” of the messaging produced by the NSC. The shift in emphasis to seat belt safety also marked an unofficial transfer of power from H.T. Rowe to Howard Pyle, the President of the NSC. Traditionally, it was the volunteer coordinator who would issue a letter with each press kit, outlining the goals of that season’s advertisement. After 1963, Governor Pyle would be the one to address the ad representatives. While Rowe was an Ad Man who cut his teeth at IBM, Pyle’s background was in politics and broadcasting. Pyle preferred facts and figures to hokey messaging, hoping that logic would be enough. It was not. The campaigns that stick with us long after they end have soul. They make us laugh; they make us cry. We connected with Vince and Larry on a level that could never be reached with raw data. No man understood the value of the “soft sell” better than Leo Burnett. It shouldn’t be a surprise that it was the agency he founded that showed us “you could learn a lot from a dummy.”