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How one campaign turned $300k into a social movement and saved thousands of lives

With a team of three people and about $300k/year, Dr. Jay Winsten and the Harvard Alcohol Project dramatically reduced the number of alcohol-related fatalities across the United States. We recently spoke with Dr. Winsten as part of our continuing exploration of solutions that were built to match the scale of social problems.

The Harvard Alcohol Project team led a campaign, from the late 1980s through the early 1990s, which introduced America to a new social norm: “designated drivers.”

Within a few years of the campaign’s launch, 97% of the target populations were familiar with and accepting of designated drivers.  And the concept has now been shown to have, in Dr. Winsten’s words,  been “passed down from one generation to the next, from older siblings to the next. The norm has been institutionalized and ingrained in our society.”

And, most powerfully, the campaign is credited for playing a significant role in the 30% decline of alcohol-related fatalities from 1988 to 1993.

So how did they do it? By influencing the influencers and engaging key decision-makers. They relentlessly pursued America’s most influential individuals and media outlets, turning them into evangelists for the designated driver message. Dr. Winsten recalls, “We learned from Madison Avenue that you need a ‘very simple message’, and to repeat that message over and over again to the target group.”

Two examples:

1. They barraged Hollywood producers and writers by:

  • sending paperweights;
  • delivering posters and table cards for holiday parties;
  • flying planes with aerial advertising in Malibu (where the producers would often spend weekends);
  • persuading all the traffic reporters in Southern California to mention the use of designated drivers;
  • purchasing billboard space (reading: “Thank TV writers for taking drunk drivers out of the picture”);
  • sending a thank you card when the term showed up in the Random House dictionary; and
  • circulating every positive news clip they could find.

2. They blanketed Martha’s Vineyard with the concept every summer, knowing that the New York Times was always searching for new angles and fodder for their coverage of the influx of celebrities and elected officials.  The movement leaders won over the participation of restaurateurs, and made certain the concept was alive everywhere people looked, and ultimately secured coverage in the Times.

During the course of the campaign, it won support as well as hundreds of in-kind donations of airtime, print space, creative talents, brand value, and celebrity endorsements. They secured dozens of New York Times articles, over a dozen public services announcements from Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, endorsements and support from the MLB, and mentions, spots and situational placements in over 160 prime time television shows.

At the end of the day, the behaviors and expectations of millions of Americans – and now their children – changed in ways that have made our country safer and healthier.

References for Further Exploration:
Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard by Dan & Chip Heath
Changing Minds: The Art and Science of Changing Our Own and Other People’s Minds by Howard Gardner
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jay-winston/designated-driver-campaig_b_405249.html
http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/hphr/winter-2009/winter09binge.html

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Will DeKrey

About Will DeKrey

As Manager of Networks & Knowledge, Will DeKrey oversees the curation, synthesis and sharing of knowledge within Community Wealth Partners and with external stakeholders in order to advance our collective understanding of how to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. Prior to this role, Will served on the consulting team at Community Wealth Partners. Will was a 1st Place Winner of the National Conference on Citizenship’s 2012 Civic Data Challenge. See Will's full bio

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