Distracted driving is a leading cause of accidents on Ontario’s roads. Whether texting or talking on a phone, drivers who were not giving the road their full attention caused 16% of all at-fault collisions in York Region between 2013 and 2015, according to the Region’s 2016 Annual Traffic Safety Report. And distracted walking—pedestrians looking at their phones instead of traffic signals and vehicles—can also lead to accidents and injuries.

As York Region officials recognized, these accidents are entirely preventable. They just needed to raise awareness about the problem and somehow convince those most likely to engage in these risky behaviours to stop. Thus was born York Region’s innovative Pledge to Ignore marketing campaign.

Beginning in June 2015, York Region, in partnership with York Regional Police and York Region Paramedic Services, challenged motorists and pedestrians to “pledge to ignore” their cellphones when driving or walking near traffic. The make-a-pledge strategy grew out of research that found when people sign a petition in favour of something, they become even more committed to it. The Pledge to Ignore campaign directed people to register their pledge at york.ca, and organizers set a goal of registering 50,000 pledges by the end of December 2016. As the campaign website noted, “Each pledge represents one less distracted driver.”

Despite a relatively modest budget of $80,000, York Region’s Pledge to Ignore campaign featured an outsized communications strategy aided by its media, advertising and analytics partners. Focusing on Millennials, a group whose members are the main smartphone users, analysts began with a scan to determine where they were concentrated within York Region. Using Environics Analytics’ (EA) PRIZM5 geodemographic segmentation system, which classifies Canadians into 68 lifestyle types, they identified three distinct segments of Millennials: those who never left home, those living on their own and those who had returned home. Mining secondary data—from Vividata and EA’s SocialValues datasets—they extracted insights about the Millennial groups’ demographics, lifestyles, media usage and, most importantly, social values. Focus groups identified attitudes about distracted driving, why people do it and how they might be persuaded to stop.

The information helped York Region determine the best media channels, locations and messages for reaching these Millennials. “The data really showed us where Millennials liked to receive messages and how they perceived them,” says Caroline Berryman, supervisor of marketing & communications in the office of the commissioner, transportation services, at York Region. Members of her team, including GIS Project Specialist Andree Gates and Data Scientist Peter Su Chu, scoured a wealth of reports and maps to help create the campaign’s data-driven execution strategy.

For example, behavioural data indicated that Millennials were open to out-of-home advertising messages in pubs and washrooms. And unlike their parents and older siblings who respond better to newspaper advertising, Millennials prefer personalized marketing interactions. That prompted York Region to send younger staff members to make informal presentations at Frosh Week events at local college campuses and York University. And with Millennials always eager to acquire more tech gadgets and accessories, free phone cases were added as an incentive to make a pledge.

“The data pointed us in directions we hadn’t thought about,” says Berryman. “At the Frosh Week events, we really talked to the students, telling them to remove their ear buds and hoodies when crossing the street, that distracted driving and walking can cause serious accidents. And they were very receptive.”

The campaign also prominently featured holiday-related messaging in witty print ads, postcards, and e-cards—part of the coordinated collateral developed by Fingerprint Communications. Visitors to the York.ca/pledgetoignore website could send a Mother’s Day e-card proclaiming, “Mom, because I love you, I promise to ignore your calls.” Or they could send a Father’s Day printable postcard that declares, “As an expression of my love…I promise not to call you.”

Even Valentine’s Day offered an opportunity to raise awareness with an e-card from a lover pledging to give a stranger undivided attention. The card reads, “Even though I love you, when I’m driving, a stranger crossing the street is more important to me. That’s why I’ve signed a Pledge to Ignore my phone when driving. I’m doing this for you. Happy Valentine’s Day.”

The message was clear: “I took the pledge. How about you?”

York Region’s social media initiatives (all tagged with #PledgetoIgnore, of course) also were supported by traditional media and event programs. With data indicating Millennials enjoy listening to radio and streaming radio, 105.9 The Region promoted the campaign at events and during on-air interviews where local celebrities, including Wendell Clark and pop singer Jully Black, were invited to make the Pledge to Ignore. York Region staff made presentations at 37 high schools and offered a special incentive for these younger Millennials: a video dance party hosted by cable network Much Music would be awarded to the school that collected the most pledges.

Throughout 2016, radio spots, web ads, social media and YouTube videos urged people to visit York.ca where they could “pledge to ignore” calls and texts, encourage their friends to join them and download challenge kits for workplaces and schools. But the most prominent feature on the site is a pledge counter. It logs in real time how many people have taken the pledge and it serves as an undeniable indicator of the campaign’s success.

In fact, the Pledge to Ignore campaign exceeded all of York Region’s goals. By the end of 2016, the campaign had registered 60,270 pledges, surpassing its goal by 21%. The secondary school presentations reached 2,775 students; some 40,000 promotional pledge cards were distributed to students in grades 10 and 11. And ads placed in campus and pub washrooms had the potential to reach 383,000 impressions.

All these efforts have increased awareness about the dangers of distracted driving and walking among a population segment most at risk. Campaign organizers have a new goal: 100,000 pledges by the end of 2017. Have you made the pledge?

 This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of Direct Marketing. 

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Hugh Hibbert

Hugh Hibbert is the director of consulting services at Environics Analytics for the government and education sectors.

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