What Do We Have to Do to Get Your Attention?

The photo stopped me. I was drinking my morning coffee and idly surfing the Web, keeping abreast of the latest political scandals and amusing myself. And there on Boingboing.net was a photo of the Ferry Building at the foot of Market Street in San Francisco in flaming ruins. For about a tenth of a second I looked at the image and thought, “Oh, my God!” Then I noticed that I was actually looking at a billboard-size image mounted on the back of a truck parked directly in front of the real Ferry Building, which was quite intact. It seemed like a cruel display of public art, especially since the terminal was transformed four years ago into a gourmet mall and farmers’ market, a foodie paradise that is now one of the most beloved places in San Francisco. Mark Frauenfelder, of Boing Boing, reported that the spectacularly retouched billboard photo had something to do with the Red Cross. He surmised that it was “an extreme fund-raising tactic” and commented, “It’s kind of cool-looking, but I don’t like the scare tactic. It almost makes me regret the many times I’ve given money to them.”

I took the time (okay, five seconds) to do a Google search and turned up a press release with the official explanation. “Publicis & Hal Riney, in partnership with its client, the American Red Cross Bay Area chapter, will launch the first phase of a comprehensive, integrated advertising campaign for the humanitarian organization. The program is part of the organization’s ‘Pre­pare Bay Area’ project. …The local chapter’s most aggressive to date, the campaign was designed to drive Bay Area residents to immediate action by leveraging a gamut of traditional and nontraditional media, including print, television, radio, out-of-home and online, as well as viral and guerilla marketing tactics.”

“Most aggressive to date”: no kidding. Seeing the images, even on a Web site—small-scale and low-res—spooked me. I have no doubt that I would have been floored by the two billboards—the second one shows the view up Market Street from the Embarcadero with familiar buildings, in-cluding the Hyatt, in a similar state of devastation—had I encountered them in person. The premise of the campaign is that Bay Area residents don’t think enough about earthquakes, at least not enough to be adequately prepared.

According to Mark Sweeney, a creative director at Hal Riney, the Red Cross had done plenty of advertising in the past, using celebrities to stress earthquake awareness. Sur­veys conducted before a previous media blitz and after revealed that the same six percent of Bay Area residents were ready for the big one. The campaign’s tagline—“What do we have to do to get your attention?”—is an expression of the organization’s frustration with its inability to get through to people. The Red Cross was, in Sweeney’s words, “a little pissed off.”

As an inherently nervous transplanted New Yorker, I never quite stopped thinking about the possibility of an earthquake during my three years in San Francisco. I was particularly unnerved by the temporary structures erected to protect passersby from construction debris. Because there’s almost no level ground in the city, the sheds there were always a little off kilter, the steel support members often propped up on rickety-looking piles of wood. Did all my walking at top speed through sidewalk sheds mean I was in some way prepared? Well, I had a tote bag packed with a spare pair of running shoes, a sweatshirt and pants, a Power Bar—apparently I’d conflated earthquakes and 10K races—and a wad of cash (except I kept borrowing from the emergency stash until there was no money left).

On my routine nonemergency jogs out my front door, on Pacific Heights bedrock, down through the waterfront Marina District, I always marveled at the fact that people continued to live down there. This was, after all, the neighborhood built on landfill that liquefied, turning into the geological equivalent of Wheatena during the 1989 quake. This is why another component of the Riney campaign got to me: the agency very slyly placed an advertisement on Craigslist.org for a two-bedroom apartment in the Cow Hollow/Marina area for a suspiciously reasonable $1,150. The link leads to a set of images of a typical Marina-district building in ruins. “Very spacious—sunken living room opens up to the street. Beautiful rubble floors.”

While the campaign’s images are strong and the strategies clever, what truly resonates is the tagline “What do we have to do to get your attention?” It’s tempting to think that its implied peevishness is custom-tailored for San Franciscans, who are famously blithe. One of my rules of thumb when I lived there was that whenever someone said, “No worries,” I worried. “The idea for this campaign,” Sweeney said in the press release, “really came out of the dis­belief and exasperation resulting from continued denial despite those efforts.”

But the tagline seems more like a universal cri de coeur. What do we have to do to get your attention? It could be the tagline for this moment in human history or for any number of campaigns. Isn’t it what Al Gore is saying when he gives his global-warming lecture? Or what John Murtha and Chuck Hagel are communicating when they speak out on Iraq?

Of course, unorthodox attention-getting strategies have been known to backfire. Guerrilla-marketing tactics can produce unintended consequences. In January a Cartoon Network campaign engendered a citywide bomb scare in Boston when a series of suspicious-looking electronic boxes were planted in locations around town. As one news report put it, “The 38 signs were part of a promotion for the Cartoon Network TV show ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force.’”

There’s something unsavory about intentionally using scare tactics: the post-9/11 era has produced so much fearmongering that most people are either immune to or angered by them. So attention-getting is risky and borderline impossible. Where are the boundaries between good shock and bad shock? Between disrupting people’s lives in a constructive way and a way that will get you arrested? Dominic Goldman, Riney’s creative director and Sweeney’s partner on the campaign, says the message must be carefully aimed and “appropriate for the target group.” In Boston, the Cartoon Network’s scattershot approach clearly reached too broad an audience.

Sandi Swiderski, director of Prepare Bay Area for the Red Cross, argues that although the campaign might inspire fear, the goal is to motivate action. The whole point is to drive people to the Red Cross Web site, where preparedness instructions and products are available.

While the ad campaign is compelling, the tools the Red Cross offers on its site are much less so: a disaster instruction sheet designed to fold to wallet size, an online course in the fundamentals of emergency response, disaster kits in a variety of shapes and sizes. Compared to the visceral power of the big billboard photos, these offerings seem inadequate, like preparing for a nuclear holocaust with duck-and-cover drills. Maybe what the Red Cross is combatting isn’t denial, but fatalism: Like, whatever. But the disaster kits are so nicely packaged that I’m tempted to order one in anticipation of whatever comes my way—natural disaster, act of war, or longish run.

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