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There’s Something About Kevin...At Least, the MTA Thinks So
By: Jeannine Wheeler
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Death, drama, destruction? Yes. Efficacy? Maybe. Welcome to a new PSA urging New York commuters NOT to jump onto the tracks to retrieve items such as iPhones. Will this new campaign be effective?

The problem is a real one. In 2012, 55 people were killed and 141 people were injured when struck by trains in the system, according to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which runs trains throughout the greater New York area. This is a daunting statistic, especially for an activity as banal as trying to get from point A to point B.

The MTA’s new PSA runs close to the real-life story of a man who jumped onto the tracks at the East 105th Street L train station in Canarsie in March to retrieve his cell phone. This man might have been luckier than our fictional Kevin — because he lived.

The train hit the brakes and passed over the man, who managed to lie down in the gap between the tracks. After the train stopped, the man reportedly emerged from the tracks and made his way out of the station, unhurt (and no doubt a little bit embarrassed, but with his phone in hand).

If his phone was anything like the one in the PSA — $299, 16GB of memory, and 4G data speed — most of us probably would have leaped down as well.

Just as did a 60-year-old Queens commuter who was not so lucky. He was struck and killed by a southbound A train in 2011 at the 14th Street station at 8th Avenue when he jumped down into the tracks to retrieve his cell phone.

The message that your life is more important than a cell phone — no matter how expensive — is a good one.

But do PSAs really work?

There is some research saying that the answer is yes and no.

According to some studies, namely one by a group of researchers led by Melanie Wakefield, the director of the Center for Behavioral Research in Cancer at the Cancer Council Victoria in Australia, the answer is complex.

The gold standard is the 1971 anti-littering PSA depicting a man dressed in traditional American Indian garb as he canoes down a river polluted with litter. As he pulls up on shore and steps up to a busy highway, a driver tosses a bag of garbage at his feet. The camera zooms in on a teardrop running down his cheek. Shown throughout the 1970s and '80s, the ad won two Clios and was named one of the top 100 advertising campaigns of the 20th century by Ad Age. The Crying Indian became an icon of the anti-littering, clean Earth movement and is sometimes credited with inspiring America's environmental movement.
The Australia study asked if mass media efforts, such as the 1987 ‘Brain on Drugs’ campaign launched by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, really work.

We all remember this one: "This is your brain (an egg). This is drugs (a hot frying pan). This is your brain on drugs (one fried egg). Any questions?"

After reviewing the outcomes of hundreds of mass media campaigns worldwide aimed at a multitude of health-risk behaviors, their simple answer — published in 2010 in the medical journal The Lancet — was yes, they do. But some fare better than others.

The group found strong evidence that anti-smoking campaigns, which have been the most widely studied, were beneficial, especially when aired in combination with other tobacco-control strategies such as tobacco taxation and smoke-free policies.

With the exception of campaigns to reduce drunken driving, however, alcohol and drug prevention efforts have had little effect, the researchers said.

Most media campaigns fall somewhere in between. The review found that messages aimed at improving nutrition, increasing physical activity, and voluntary cancer screening rates were moderately helpful.

For the MTA anti-track jumping campaign, it will be interesting to see if it will lead to fewer deaths and injuries on the commuter rails.

However, when someone drops an item of perceived value on the tracks and sees no train in sight, it’s more of a visceral reaction of danger vs. expediency, rather than a more temporal decision influenced by the authorities telling them that if you jump, you lose.’

Even if it is the latest version of the iPhone with all your contacts stored in it...

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About the Author
Jeannine Wheeler is a PR Director who has worked in three countries, including Russia, the US and the UK. She is currently Sr. Vice President of Pure Energy PR, a full-service boutique communications firm with a focus on the energy, healthcare, technology, construction, real estate & land development, tourism & hospitality and food & beverage industries. Jeannine is in the firm's Austin, Texas office.
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