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The Future Terror Attack on a Billboard Near You

What if it was your job to encourage the public to prepare for a future terrorist attack? The issue involves an odd brew of deep emotion (fear, anxiety, dread) and banal reality (buy a flashlight!). A NY chapter of the Red Cross has accepted this mission. Its campaign is a great case study in the difficulty of making an idea stick. Let's hit the highlights and lowlights.

Start here — these are the billboards being run for the campaign. They show fake-newspaper headlines screaming, "TERRORIST STRIKE — LEAVES CITY IN CHAOS!" And the date, if you happen to notice it, is November 9, 2009. There is a link at the bottom:

My first reaction to the billboard was that it must have been an inflamed political statement of some kind. (E.g., if we don't seal up our borders, we're doomed for sure!) I read the subtext as: We're doing something that is putting us on the "terrorist strike path."

In reality, the billboards are a teaser — they're intended to hook your interest so you'll go to the website, which has some information about how to prepare your family for a potential attack. BoingBoing calls the billboards "fearmongering." I think that's mostly true, though I empathize with the Red Cross creators — they were trying to do something to shock the public, which desperately wants to avoid the topic, into taking some necessary precautions. Precautions that could save lives.

So the billboard shocks and provokes, and the reason it exists is to drive traffic to a website. (It's reminiscent of the dot-com era billboards, where the creative would be so clever and bizarro that you'd make a note to check out the site). But people don't like to be afraid. Would we really go searching for the website later (assuming we remembered the URL)? "Honey, write down that URL so we can feel terrified and helpless later."

Here's the tragedy: When you get to the site, there's a strong message there: "If you knew for certain that a disaster was going to happen on a given day, you'd do everything possible to prepare for it. Unfortunately, catastrophic events don't provide advanced warning." So get ready now. That's the core of the message, and it's a good one. Note that preparing for something, even something bad, is fundamentally an act of control and empowerment, not an act that should inspire helplessness or fear. The billboards were created as a lure, but they're actually a distraction (and potentially an off-putting one).

If you click around the site, you'll find a list of practical tips for preparing for an attack. I love these tips, because they are a mix of wonderfully sticky and wonderfully non-sticky items.

Sticky tips:

  • Plan on a place that your family can meet outside your neighborhood, in case you can't return home or in case there's an evacuation. (This is unexpected and concrete — two traits of stickiness. Great stuff.)

  • Give everyone wallet-sized copies of emergency contact info, and include an out-of-town contact, because it may be easier to call outside the area if the local phone lines are overloaded. (Ditto.)

Non-sticky tips:

  • Discuss with your family the disasters that can happen where you live. Establish responsibilities for each member of your household and plan to work together as a team. (Way too abstract to be useful. "Great job, Susie, we've identified sarin, dirty bombs, nukes, tsunamis, tornados, and Cartoon Network promotions as possible disasters. What else ya got?")

  • Ask someone at the fire department to show you how to use the fire extinguisher you store in your home." (Yes, and then ask Sheriff Billy Bob to show you how to lock the doors extra tight!)

What can we take away from this? Make sure your billboards (metaphorical or literal) reflect your core message. It's good to be surprising, but not if the surprise leads you away from the core. Also, the preparation tips are a good proxy for organizational communication — it's vital to keep your messages concrete and simple. And, also, don't ask people to call the fire department for an extinguisher tutorial.

Books mentioned in this post

Chip and Dan Heath is the author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die

2 Responses to "The Future Terror Attack on a Billboard Near You"

    Adele March 26th, 2007 at 10:12 am

    Thanks man, i agree

    Wall Decals For Kids James May 11th, 2011 at 12:31 am

    I totally agree on your point of you here. You can't really seem to know when are those terrorist's gonna strike. I always advise people to be aware and be safe. Thanks for posting.

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