Social Impact of National Crime Prevention Campaign

The use of mass media to promote more active citizen involvement in reducing crime and illicit drug use has emerged as a major component of criminal justice policy (Lab, 1988; Heinzelmann, 1987; O'Keefe, 1990; Rosenbaum, 1988; Gurette,1992). Countless state and community-wide publicity campaigns have been inaugurated, as have coordinated national efforts such as the National Citizens' Crime Prevention Campaign, Crime Stoppers, and the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program. This trend follows implementation of a wide range of public information campaigns and other promotional efforts in recent years dealing with various social welfare and health-related topics (Rice and Atkin, 1989; Salmon, 1989).

Public Information Campaigns

Information campaigns in general: (1) intend "to generate specific outcomes or effects (2) in a relatively large number of individuals, (3) usually within a specified period of time and (4) through an organized set of communication activities" (Rogers and Storey, 1987, p.821). Although public information campaigns share common interests in informing and influencing the citizenry, they often go about the job in widely varying ways, depending upon the type of problem or issue being addressed and the specific campaign objectives (Paisley, 1989). Other factors affecting campaign strategies include the characteristics of the target audiences and the time and money available for the effort (O'Keefe and Reid, 1990). Most projects attempt to combine public information or media publicity campaigns with community participation and training activities (Flora et al., 1989). Media tend to be more effective at building citizen awareness of an issue, and more direct forms of citizen contact and intervention are apt to generate complex attitudinal or behavioral changes (Rogers and Storey, 1987).

The development of successful informational and promotional programs in crime prevention and other issue areas remains part art, part science. Even the more well-wrought efforts depend upon diverse and often scattershot approaches for reaching their audiences (Grunig, 1989; Salmon, 1989). Equally important, it is typically difficult to evaluate whether the programs have achieved their goals. The criteria for success or failure of these campaigns are often vague. Although more formal evaluations are increasing, they tend to be of low order scientific validity. Tight experimental controls are seldom used, largely because of the cost and complexity of implementing them in "naturalistic" field situations. Even when statistically significant findings are obtained under reasonably controlled conditions, questions often arise concerning how generalizable the results are to larger populations, and whether the program was cost and/or effort efficient.

Crime prevention campaigns pose special problems in their own right. Much of the activity referred to as crime and illicit drug use prevention fit under the umbrella of what Weinstein (1987) calls self-protective behavior. This construct also encompasses anticipatory reactions to many health risks as well as natural and occupational hazards. In identifying the key predictor variables in precautionary behaviors, Weinstein includes beliefs about the probability and severity of the harm, the efficacy of a precautionary action, and the cost of taking action. Persuading people to increase such actions can be difficult, in part because of complex interactions among the above factors, especially in crime-related situations (Lavrakas et al., 1980).

Also, as Rogers and Storey (1987) note, programs advocating the adoption of behaviors to help prevent a possible unpleasant experience in the future tend to be less successful than those offering more timely and obvious rewards. A useful distinction may also be made between the kinds of measures persons are willing to take on a onetime initiative basis, and behaviors that need to be sustained, perhaps over a lifetime. As in the case of health protection actions, the motives for each type maybe somewhat different.

Adding to the problem is that the salience of crime and drug abuse and the perceived efficacy of preventive behaviors vary considerably across social class, geographic locale, and other demographic boundaries (Rosenbaum, 1988; Lavrakas and Bennett, 1988; Greenberg, 1987; O'Keefe and Reid-Nash, 1987). (Such variations can be found with health issues, traffic safety and other societal concerns, but for crime the differentiation are typically more visible to the average citizen and are readily documented in crime rate figures.) This heterogeneity across citizen groups calls for better care and effort in targeting messages to specific subgroups for greater effect.

Public Service Advertising

Public service advertising has become a significant vehicle through which large portions of campaign content are communicated to the public. In brief, PSAs are promotional materials that address problems assumed to be of general concern to most citizens. PSA's typically attempt to increase public awareness of such problems and their possible solutions. In many instances, they also try to influence public beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors concerning those problems (sometimes with unrealistic expectations). Most PSAs emanate from not-for-profit or governmental organizations and receive gratis placement in broadcast and print media.

PSA Content

PSAs reflect the individual concerns of their sponsors. The last significant content analyses of televised PSAs during the 1970s indicated that nearly one-hall of them dealt with health or personal safety topics, including alcohol and drug abuse, preventive health care, traffic safety, nutrition, and the like (Hanneman et al., 1973; Paletz et al., 1977). Other topics included environmental concerns, community services, educational and occupational opportunities, consumer issues, volunteer recruitment, and general humanitarian concerns. The vast majority of the ads offered informative and in some cases persuasive messages, with a smaller number being fundraising appeals. Governmental agencies were responsible for about one-fourth of all PSAs.

A more recent study of television public service directors indicates that their main choices of PSA content areas included alcohol and drug abuse, drunk driving, missing children, child abuse, and such health concerns as cancer and diabetes (Needham Porter Novelli, 1985). This finding in part possibly reflects a national campaign under way for the past 2 years by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) aimed at public education on substance abuse, particularly as related to driving habits. NAB studies have indicated that nearly 100 percent of television and radio stations carried alcohol-related PSA's during 198~5 (NAB 1984, 1985).

PSA Placement

Media organizations donate the space and time for PSA presentations. Those PSAs warranting free media placement are ordinarily relegated to status behind regular paid ads or commercials and often are apt to appear only as space or time becomes available. Televised PSAs, for example, have traditionally run during lesser watched dayparts (although in doing so some may well reach their appropriate target audiences, e.g., children or teenagers). Hanneman et al. found that in the early 1970s nearly two-thirds of all televised PSAs ran between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on weekdays.

However, there are recent indications of a more favorable time distribution being allocated to at least certain kinds of PSAs. During 1985, for example, the American Broadcasting Company carried more than 1,000 PSAs related to alcohol and drug abuse, with 47 percent of those being shown during prime time (32 percent were shown during daytime, and 21 percent late at night) (ABC, 1986).

Competition among PSA sponsors for media placement is heavy, and many of the ads fail to be effectively distributed to consumers. Although precise data are unavailable, competition among PSA producers for placement appears to have increased substantially over the years. Also, broadcast advertising has become more "cluttered" with increased emphasis on more frequent spots of shorter duration.

The dissemination of any particular PSA is at the discretion of the network, station, or publication management. In addition, content and stylistic and production factors can influence decisions on whether to present it, and if so, when and where (McGowan, 1980).

Most of the television public affairs directors surveyed by Needham Porter Novelli (1985) indicated that the local impact or relevance of the spot was a major factor (perhaps the most important factor), followed respectively by subject matter and technical quality. Providing a local identification tag with the PSA was deemed a strong asset. Contact by a local organization promoting the PSA was likewise seen as a plus. Also the one or two inch videotape format had a greater effect than 16 mm film. Most PSAs have about a 3- to 6-month life span, and "freshness" or novelty is often a factor in media acceptance.

Comparable data on PSA placement on radio and in newspapers and magazines are unavailable. Information on outdoor advertising is unavailable as well. One suspects that such attributes as subject matter, quality, and local relevance remain critical to PSA use by these media. However, message formats and audience targeting factors obviously differ from medium to medium. More research on such variations would be useful.

PSA Effectiveness

O'Keefe and Reid (1990) found that the public is fairly attentive to PSAs, especially over television, and people have generally favorable reactions to them. However, evaluation of the impact of specific media campaigns is difficult because PSAs often form only one component of larger media or community campaigns. Evaluations carried out during the 1940s and 1950s suggested that public information campaigns - as well as mass media in general - had minimal effects on public beliefs, attitudes, and especially behaviors (Klapper, 1960). By the early 1970s, however, some evidence began to indicate otherwise. More importantly, increasingly sophisticated research methods allowed closer examination of the situations and conditions under which successful campaigns would be more likely to occur (Douglas, Westley, and Chaflee, 1970; Flay, 1986).

Some recent campaign successes involving PSAs have been found in the areas of mental health (Douglas, Westley, and Chaftee, 1970; Schanie and Sundel, 1978), pesticide use (Salcedo et al, 1974), smoking cessation (Warner, 1977), heart disease risk prevention (Flora et a., 1988), colon cancer testing (ARC, 1991), and crime prevention (O'Keefe, 1985, 1986). There are also indications that children can learn information from certain types of PSA's (Roberts et al., 1979).

O'Keefe and Reid (1990) conclude that campaigns in general appear more likely to succeed if they incorporate theoretical models of communication or persuasion into their development. The more effective campaigns made extensive use of commercial advertising planning principles in their design and execution. Formative research, audience segmentation, and pretesting appear as key ingredients. Clearly delineated campaign goals and measurement objectives are also highly important.

O'Keefe and Reid also imply that the effectiveness of PSAs is also highly dependent upon the extent of their dissemination by broadcast and print media, and such activity has shown a recent increase in some topic areas. The technical quality of PSAs is a clear factor in their success, as is their local community appeal. PSAs also are generally more effective when tied to more extensive campaigns, and/or when they ride on a wave of ongoing public opinion or concern. Furthermore, PSAs are likely to be more effective when they provide information about topics most people already generally agree upon. Also, they are more effective if their design considers not only existing awareness, attitudes, and behaviors of the target audience with respect to the topic, but audience communication preferences and behaviors as well (O'Keefe, 1986). The extent to which most PSA-oriented campaigns meet the above criteria - and thus their effectiveness - is quite open to question. As was noted earlier for public information campaigns in general, the time, expense, and effort involved in carrying out valid evaluations of these campaigns is typically prohibitive for most PSA efforts.