3 messaging lessons from funny highway safety signs

More departments of transportation are resorting to humor to get their public safety message across, but not everyone is laughing. Is humor the right move for these important messages?




If you’ve traveled through Utah, Missouri, Iowa, or a number of other states recently, you may have seen these eye-catching, retweet-fetching highway signs.

The quipy roadside banners are part of a widespread trend to create a dialogue around public safety and save lives.

Is using humor to convey dull topics effective?

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There is no specific study evaluating the effectiveness of funny highway signage versus straightforward messaging, however several anecdotal accounts provide guidance. According to Lisa Miller, traveler information manager for the Utah Department of Transportation:

Ninety-nine percent of our feedback has been positive. We’re even getting people contacting us, asking, ‘Have you considered this message?’ Then they give us an idea for a message to go on the signs.

Traffic authorities in Arlington County, Virginia found that a very direct message with built-in humor accomplished the message’s objective:

In August 2013, the dynamic message board at the intersection, which had previously warned drivers of the dangerous merge, changed its message to something simple that pointed directly at drivers’ immediate actions: “Do not hit the car in front of you.” Though it seems laughable, accidents at that intersection actually dropped significantly in the following weeks.

Not all feedback has been positive. According to Linda Wilson Horn, communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Transportation:

One criticism we have had of our boards is that the message itself is distracting. We have a couple of people who say, ‘Don’t tell me to keep my eyes on the road when reading your sign is making me look away from the road.’ We have a few members of the public who like to repeatedly tell us our signs are a distraction.

Conversely, the Iowa Department of Transportation pulled data from required GPS systems on large trucks to find that (at least with truckers) the messages did not cause any slow-down.

Writer Aaron Miller of Thrillist argues signs like the ones on the highway aren’t intended to be noticed consciously:

This sign…exists purely to prime your brain, even if you aren’t paying attention to it. It’s called “cognitive priming” and the point is to increase your concentration and decrease your reaction time. That may seem obvious, but researchers in England have proven that it works purely on an unconscious level, rather than a conscious one.

As more states adopt funny billboards, others rely on messages amplifying the number of traffic deaths.

According to a study in the International Journal of Behavioral Consultation and Therapy:

Higher levels of fear enhance persuasion up until some critical point; however, once this critical point is exceeded the level of fear becomes too great and defensive avoidance reactions are likely to result, with subsequent rejection of the message more likely to occur.

Messaging that inspires fear also lacks a clear call to action provided by simpler messaging like “Click it or ticket.” According to Andrew Carpenter of Mobility Lab:

Fear-based approaches are indirect messages that focus on the consequences of unsafe actions, rather than the specific actions that can make people act more safely. Such an approach hardly accounts for the fact that people, using any mode, behave in predictable – though not necessarily rational – ways.

Communicators can take away these three tips for effectively using humor in writing:

  1. State your point simply. There’s a lot of great content out there. Assume your reader is doing you a favor by consuming your content, and make it easy for them to take something concrete away.
  2. Use humor, if you can keep it simple. Humor is a great attention-grabber, but if it doesn’t get the message across, you’ve wasted your energy. You may remember this funny ad, but do you remember which car brand it was for?
  3. Messages that distract or offend are never worth it. According to PR expert Peter Dudley: “Any humor must first serve the goals of the piece; gratuitous humor will distract from the message.”

Do you have a brilliant idea for a billboard, PR Daily readers? The Illinois Tollway is taking suggestions for new public safety messages.

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