Kids watching prime-time television in Kern County these days see more than Bill Cosby and "Miami Vice."
They see a cool guy in shades and black leather jacket slide out of a sports car and mingle with partying teen-agers. Girls eye him as he refuses a drink and karate kicks a beer can.
The message in the 30-second spot is clear: It's hip not to drink and drive.
The kids don't know it, but they are part of an experiment. Two San Francisco Bay Area companies have joined the California Highway Patrol to see if buying prime-time spots for drunk-driving messages saves lives. Kern County's 12-month "Driver Project," which started in September, is one of six projects funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to test the theory.
Promoted in Schools
Systan Inc., a Los Altos-based transportation consulting firm, is the Kern County project supervisor; the Roanoke Co. Inc. of Menlo Park is the advertising agency, and the CHP places the spots and promotes them in local schools.
The $771,500 project is rapidly taking on a life of its own.
Girls are falling in love with the macho "driver" played by model Sean Breen. Boys are dressing like him. On Valentine's Day, model Breen paraded like a celebrity through Bakersfield high schools. One radio station even started a "win a date with the driver" contest.
And maybe--maybe--kids are beginning to emulate the kid who never drives drunk.
"When it (the commercial) first came out, it was like a joke," said Rudy Negrete, 18, a student at Garces High School in Bakersfield. "But after seeing it a few times, (kids) faced reality."
Drunk-driving statistics in Kern County are no joke.
More than 400 people were killed in drunk-driving accidents during the last five years, the highest number per capita in California. In the same period, there were more than 10,000 alcohol-related accidents, or five to six accidents a day. About 39% of the fatalities were caused by drivers between the ages of 16 and 24.
So far, the driver project hasn't dented the casualty figures. Through February, injury accidents were down compared to the year before, but drunk-driving arrests were up, according to CHP estimates.
Kern County's CHP is adopting a wait-and-see stance.
"It's too early to tell," said Bob Burdick, the CHP officer handling the project. "It's the first time something like this has been tried. We're going to have to go full-term with the project, then take a look back."
Unlike most public service announcements, the driver spots are slick affairs. Systan and Roanoke wanted bright, catchy imagery in their TV spots. So they hired Chris Blum, a Cleo Award-winning film maker, to do the footage.
They went further. They designed "teaser" spots that kept kids wondering about the ad's intent; they posted driver billboards around Bakersfield; and they hit the radio stations, TV programs and newspapers kids would notice.
In fact, they used the same techniques many beer and automobile companies use to advertise their products.
"We're fighting fire with fire," said Rob Caughlan, a Roanoke partner. "We let GM and Budweiser do our market research for us."
As a control, the driver spots also run in Sacramento. But in Sacramento, the CHP relies on radio and television stations to donate time. The ads end up in less expensive time slots when kids are least likely to see them.
That's precisely the problem that has plagued public service announcements for years.
"Public service announcements are shown whenever it's convenient for the network," said Diane Steed, administrator for the Traffic Safety Administration in Washington. "Generally, unless it's a very high-quality ad, it's at 2 a.m. When you can buy your ad and direct your exposure, it's much better targeted."
But targeting alone wasn't enough in Kern County. The producers for the Driver Project wanted a message teen-agers could relate to.
No Death Threats
They didn't want to preach--kids get it at home. Threatening kids with death was useless because most adolescents can't imagine they could die.
The producers finally settled upon a role model approach to begin the campaign. They tacitly accepted that underage kids drink. The driver's message is simply don't drive under the influence.
"This (program) is an acceptance of reality many other programs don't have," said Richard Tucker, principal at Garces High School. "Parents may have trouble accepting because it acknowledges kids go out and have a few drinks even though they legally can't."
The project's next stage began in early February. Organizers are experimenting with a more traditional public service announcement motif: scare tactics. The tough guy paralyzed for life in a car crash.
But the film play is anything but traditional. The kaleidoscopic images, flashbacks and haunting sound effects were clearly designed for the television generation.
There is no plot, just a simple "before" and "after" sequence. The power comes from the editing and the sound effects.