The continuing impact of a contagious truth


Recently, I was interviewed by Danielle Caldwell, founder of the Re-Quilibrium social marketing podcast,   about the Embrace Life road safety campaign I instigated/led and its continuing positive impact even after more than five years ‘in the wild’.  This post complements that interview.

It seems incredible that Embrace Life is over five years old.  Released onto Youtube on 29th Jan 2010, it’s gone on to clock up over 19million online hits (with over 50,000 ‘thumbs up’) and  a series of significant advertising & creativity awards.  However, more importantly, it’s received unsolicited testimony stating that it’s changed behaviours, for example:

“I sow [sic] this ad 6 months ago, and it’s the reason that i wear seat bell [sic] since” (posted by Ahmed Volcano on Embrace Life’s Youtube page).

It’s something special, something that I’m delighted to have been responsible for and something which, I’m proud to say, is still being discussed to this day.

So, the film.

Did it work?

That’s the $64million dollar question.  The best answer I can give you is – probably.

With this type of work, we’ll never know how many lives we save.  Metrics only go so far – complex behaviours such as operating a vehicle are influenced by multitude of factors, of which this campaign may only have been one.

Given the volume of comments (specifically on Youtube) suggesting that individuals have been motivated to wear their seatbelt because of this advert, I’m going to say that it has worked at least for some people.

Why does it work conceptually?

At the start of the process, we came up with the single piece of insight that underpinned the entire campaign – the pattern a seatbelt makes across a body is similar to that of an embrace.   We reasoned that most people in the world will be familiar with the concept/experience of a hug, and that this experience will be positively linked to a range of attractive emotions (love, security, comfort etc).

This simplicity gave us the opportunity to build out meaningfully – plus the message is extremely simple:  ‘Always wear a seatbelt’ is neither difficult to understand, nor difficult to do.

Insight, insight, insight.  It’s the driver of all of this.

What theories of behaviour change does Embrace Life invoke?

If only I had known all of these when we started the process, it would have stopped me from fruitless scrabbling for the words to describe what was in my head!

When we were developing Embrace Life, the concept we were working from was one of cognitive consonance; all other road safety work was (and, largely still is) dissonant, forcing processing to either challenge previously held conceptions – running the risk of ingraining them deeper such as in shame/guilt processing of anti drink-driving messages – or to actively turn away from the message because of its graphic content.

By approaching the work seeking cognitive consonance, we were able to ask the question ‘Why will this matter to the audience’ both in the initial stages and in the promotional phase which saw us instigate influencer out-reach, open an art gallery for young people and integrate the campaign into a street-art initiative.  We picked audiences, wondered what would matter to them and pursued the answers.

Since the campaign launched, I’ve studied other theories which are embodied in what we wanted to achieve with the campaign including somatic marker hypothesis, approach/avoidance motivations and reinforcement theory.  There’s probably a massive amount of cognitive and neuroscientific reasons why the ad is so memorable, but those will do me for a start.

Some surprising outcomes…

When we set out to make a road safety film to change behaviours and save lives, we didn’t think that it would be so well adopted in completely different arenas.


It’s made the curriculum in schools across the world (for example here’s a UK AQA exam paper (see page 6), a BA(Hons) Advertising student blog and  Analysis of Argument classes, plus I’ve even found it on arts teachers’ resources and on a University course) – it’s even popped up in Teaching English as a Foreign Language courses, in global training sessions for one of the best known high street banking businesses and in religious study.

Flatteringly, it’s also been the subject of academic debate (cf this paper on “Interaction of Multimodal Metaphor and Metonymy in Public Service Advertising” or this aggregation of interactions through the National Social Marketing Centre).

All of this means that the core message is being used far beyond the relatively narrow confines of the road safety advertising (or learning to drive) worlds.  And, because people are engaging with it in a huge number of different ways, their perception and retention of it is likely to be higher than a simple ‘watch, share, move on’ advert.


Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or something.  I’m not going to get into the rights and wrongs of copyright law, but I can’t remember another PSA that seemed to get remade so many times.  2 minutes on YouTube gives me a version remade for the UAE, TurkeyAsia and Louisiana (plus this lower-quality Spanish version), I’m sure there are more.

Whatever stance you’re taking on copyright law and the filing of Youtube Violation reports (I must have made thousands while I was at the Partnership to protect our IP), people engaged with the work so deeply that they wanted to translate it for their own cultural schema.

As a piece of social marketing, this dramatically spread the impact out far beyond our initial launch area through giving individuals a sense of ownership over the work, therefore speaking to their social capital and, in the case of the various companies who paid to license it, corporate social responsibility initiatives.

The legacy

What legacy does Embrace Life have?  The fact that I’m still being asked to talk about it five years later is a good indicator that something special happened, as is the fact that it’s still being shown in schools, corporate training events and in road safety classes around the world.

Within the road safety sphere, does it have a professional legacy?

That’s something that I’m not sure of.  Adverts are still being made relying on shock-and-awe tactics, promoting cognitive dissonance over consonance to try and ram home messages.  Idealistically, I had perhaps hoped that the enduring legacy would have been to make some of the domestic safety agencies try a different tack and produce work that actually spoke to an audience and engaged them emotionally for drive behaviour change success…

Key learnings

Embrace Life was a whirlwind of viral campaign handling, international media interviews and on-the-fly opportunity grabbing.  From the million lessons learned, here are the three key ones:

  1. Be simple.  The more clever and complicated you try to be, the more you’ll lose people along the way.  Simplicity is hard to find, but once found, it is enduring and consistently relevant to an audience
  2. Be emotional.  If you try to rationalise everything, you may engage intellect but not hearts.  Find and speak to intrinsic motivations – often these will be at an emotional rather than cognitive level
  3. Be truthful.  Find that key nugget of insight, that core contagious truth, and work the campaign for all that it’s got, using that truth as the touchstone.  If you want to do something and it doesn’t ring with that core truth, don’t do it – find something else and move on…  Additionally, if you build from a universal core truth, the work has the opportunity to become a social object, passed between audience members, talked up and played back (I think that Robinson’s recently shot for, and hit, this well).


Thanks to Danielle at the Re-Quilibrium social marketing podcast for inviting me to be a part of the show.  If you’d like to know any more about the campaign, or how a similarly cognitively consonant approach might work for you, please don’t hesitate to give me a shout.

Oh, and sharing is caring, so don’t forget to keep tuning into Re-Quilibrium each week for the latest social marketing discussions!


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