Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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Controlling The Message

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on April 30, 2014

SnakesOrganizations, governments, and especially the drowning prevention field, would love to be able to control everything. After all, if you have total control over content, over what the public is seeing and how they are acting, the world would operate much more smoothly and there would be no problems. Right?

I think we call that level of control ‘dictatorship’ and are generally opposed to the concept, yet we all seem to gravitate towards exerting that level of control. Not only that, but when you are dealing with something as complex as water safety it’s like trying to control a pit of snakes – even more difficult.

We are convinced there is one right message and spend too much of our time dissecting and criticizing the ‘unauthorized’ water safety messages that are out there and complaining about destructive efforts instead of focusing on how we can spin better ‘authorized’ messages more effectively so that the ‘right’ messages are seen and heard. Our focus needs to be on creating messages that go viral and stick in the public’s consciousness. (Of course part of the problem is deciding what messages should be ‘authorized’, but that’s for another blog.)

Humans are complex, but instead of addressing the complexity effectively and positively, we tend to react negatively. When something doesn’t match our world view of how something should be, we spend our energy slamming the message, pulling it apart, and publicly refuting the information. The problem is, when humans see that level of disagreement, it’s more likely that the wrong message stay in their head. It’s like those Far Side cartoons about what we say vs. what dogs hear. ‘Ginger, stay out of the garbage! Did you hear me? I said stay out of the garbage, Ginger!’ vs. ‘Ginger, blah, blah, blah…Ginger’. Nothing about staying out of the garbage sticks, just like nothing in our criticism of damaging or misleading water safety videos sticks, except the original message, which we’ve inadvertently highlighted.

We can only counteract misleading messages with stronger accurate messages.

There are two videos that I’m going to look at that are as viral as it gets in water safety. I’m going to dissect those videos, look at why they’ve been influential, and then explore how to use that power.

Whenever I say I work in drowning prevention, there is one video that people consistently bring up to show that they understand the issue and how to solve the problem. A baby in a sleepsuit floating in a pool, ‘saving’ itself.  On various channels this video has almost 9 million views. Not Gangnam style viral, but enough that it is forming impressions. The first time I saw it my adrenalin shot through the roof, followed with disbelief that any parent would subject, much less film, their child in such a traumatic situation. I wanted to reach into my computer and pull the child from the water. The technique being shown is greatly contested, with a large number of academics in firm opposition and a smaller number of practitioners convinced it is the holy grail of drowning prevention. Right or wrong, the reality is a large number of people have seen the video and been strongly influenced. The reason? Emotion. It’s the adrenalin rush and the use of a baby that most people are hard-wired to want to protect. The message is clear, there is a quick fix, a magic bullet to take away that imagined pain of losing a child to drowning. Like it or not, that is the message, the impression, that people take away, however over-simplistic and misleading it might be.

Lesson: Eliciting a strong emotion leaves a lasting impression.

The second video viscerally shows the drowning process.  Developed by a French company to promote life jacket use, it is an interactive video. You have to keep scrolling to try to stay alive, but the process of drowning is powerfully communicated by relatively few sounds and no direct camera shots. The point is to convince people to use life jackets, but I suspect the impact would depend on the audience. I couldn’t watch the whole thing, I found it very upsetting, yet when I asked a friend who is an avid, non-jacket-wearing sailor to watch it, he (and I think the gender is key here) dismissed it to an inexperienced helmsman who jibed the boat and didn’t follow man overboard protocol. True. Even I, a less experienced sailor, picked up on that, and that aspect of the story line may have dramatically decreased the impact on the target audience, boaters who don’t wear life jackets. Again, the use of emotion was key to engaging the audience, but the exact situation has to be someone that the target audience can relate to. In this case the wrong emotion was elicited for at least one class of viewer. Perhaps it would have been better to have a man checking the lines in rough seas and having the boat simply jerk and toss him overboard as a ‘yes, I can relate’ scenario.

Lesson: When you are eliciting emotion, make sure you are eliciting the right emotion. Keep it real.

As often as I push for positive messages, there is a place for the occasional jolt of adrenalin to redirect attention, to shock people out of their ‘not my problem’ state of mind. There are ways of using emotion and facts to change perceptions and actions.

The Josh Project created two videos that showed on the big screen at the Daytona 500, seen by over a million people. The first video is 45 seconds. Photos of happy children in all types of water are depicted. ,but we alternated between the positive emotions elicited by the photos of the children and the stark statements of what went wrong.   The contrast between emotions was key.

The second video is 35 seconds.  A timer appears between slides, relentlessly ticking away the seconds while facts about the prevalence of drowning are posted, including, “It’s more dangerous then fire.” “More accessible than firearms.” There are photos showing where drowning can occur and ends “Help us stop this hidden epidemic.” Again, emotion, evoke a sense of urgency and of time ticking away, and emphasize the fact that drowning can happen in 2 minutes.

Lesson: Emotion plus facts makes a strong impact. Making people think they have the power to change the outcome makes the strongest impact.

Another good video, but done in a very different way, the facts, just the facts, in 2 1/2 minutes. Just out this week, from Dan Graham at Nile Swimmers.   The emotion is evoked in another way, in the calm recitation of facts, but especially in the comparisons of death rates and spending to malaria. Dan builds a story, supports it with simple facts and simple graphics. It’s easy to write a lot, but much harder to edit down to the bare bones, which Dan accomplished.

Lesson: Under 3 minutes. Simple language. Use comparisons effectively. Simple graphics. Speak clearly and slowly.

What’s missing in every video is the multi-media follow-up push – one that would require all of us to work together. For any one aspect of water safety, for maximum impact, the message has to be coming at people from every angle. For the life jacket video, ideally I’d have a full-court press on life jackets for one month to coincide with the ‘Wear Your Life Jacket To Work’ event, promoting life jacket loaner programs, press releases, social media drive, and especially with manufacturers of boats and life jackets to offer specials and improve product placement within stores – have the life jackets in front of people when they are thinking about it. Don’t just push information, provide a way for people to change their behavior positively. Make it easy to change and be safer.

We keep pushing the facts, but we forget that emotion sways people far more. If we want to control the message, we need to sway emotions safely and accurately.

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