Disney “Cars” Jump Track as Public Health Messengers: A Critique Based on Psychological Reactance Theory – Francis Veale
Distracted driving is an emerging public health concern. Particularly of concern is the prevalence of distracted driving among young drivers (age 21 to 24). A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study found that two out of ten drivers surveyed admitted to texting or e-mailing while behind the wheel of a car. Among young drivers, five out of ten admitted to sending an e-mail or text while behind the wheel. Further study of selected intersections and stoplights reveled that roughly 1% of all drivers were using a cell phone or handheld web access device (1).
Performing any activity that could divert a person’s attention from the primary task of driving is the definition of distracted driving. These activities include, but are not limited to, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading maps or directions, adjusting the radio or GPS, and use of a cell phone for both calls and texting (2). However, it is the prevalence of cell phone use, especially cell phone texting, which has led to the greatest concern as a result of the types of distraction to driving associated with text use (2).
The NHTSA defines three different types of attention that are required for safe driving. These are manual attention, which is having both hands operating the vehicle, visual attention, which is keeping your eyes on the road and other drivers for safety, and cognitive attention, which is thinking about driving while you are driving. Texting while driving diverts these necessary attentions from the act of driving. Because all three attentions are diverted simultaneously, texting becomes such a dangerous distraction when driving (2)(13).
The NHTSA has released many statistics that show distracted driving is a public health concern. In 2009, the NHTSA reports that 5,474 people were killed in distracted driver accidents. 448,ooo more individuals were estimated as injured due to distracted driving (2). The Pew Research Center found that 43% of all teens age 16-17 have used a cell phone while driving. Furthermore, 40% of all teens 12-17 “have been in a car when the driver used a cell phone in a way that put themselves or others in danger” (3). A Carnegie Mellon study found that using a cell phone while driving “reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%” (4).
In response to the prevalence of distracted driving, NHTSA and the Department of Transportation have created several interventions. One of these interventions was a public service announcement commercial that played at movie theatres and on broadcast and cable television. The commercial featured popular characters from the Disney films “Cars” and “Cars 2.” The commercial can be seen at the following web address <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i_Yna_VYECg> (5).
The message delivered by the commercial is very simple to understand, that is “only bad guys drive distracted.” Also clearly visible in this commercial were the no calling and no texting statements that appear in the middle of the commercial (5). However, despite the intended message, this message may not promote the intended behavior based upon Psychological Reactance Theory.
Psychological Reactance Theory explains reaction and behavior when a person perceives a loss of freedom. Preventing or trying to prevent a behavior results in the individual valuing the intended behavior less and the prevented behavior more (6). As this relates to the “Cars PSA,” the population targeted by this message may react with the opposite of the intended behavior, i.e. continuing to text and call while driving.
With the advent of mobile phones have also come handheld wireless internet technologies and texting features. These advances in phones have been marketed and advertised as a source of “freedom.” Verizon Wireless offers a “Freedom Plan.” Sprint offers a “Business Freedom” plan. Even cell phone retailer Best Buy touts “phone freedom” where the individual can choose any phone and any wireless carrier. These advertisements create a “perceived freedom” associated with having and using a mobile phone. A commercial such as the “Cars PSA” is a threat to the freedom of using your phone whenever and however you please. Furthermore, it is perceived as a threat to the freedom of an individual’s choice on how, when, and even with whom that individual wishes to communicate. This threat to a perceived freedom causes reactance. Reactance in this case will be the desire to text and call from a mobile phone whenever an individual sees fit, including when that individual is driving. This reactance provides the individual with a restoration of the freedom associated with texting and calling at one’s will (6)(7).
The “Cars PSA” increases reactance due to its dominance. Domination increases reactance as it appears as a greater threat to the perceived freedom (7). In the commercial, the message is to never be distracted when driving. Immediately following this message are the statements “No Calling” and “No Texting” with visuals of red cross-out circles over the respective words (5). These prohibitive visuals are reminiscent of no smoking signs, no diving signs, and numerous other prohibitive signage. The visuals in this PSA distort the intended message by showing texting and calling as the causes for distraction rather than the individual driving the car who has a clear choice to text or call, not text or call, or to shut off a phone entirely. Furthermore, there is no real consequence given for the behavior except for “only bad guys drive distracted” (5).
Avoidance of the intended behavior is also increased by the PSA’s labeling of distracted drivers as “bad guys.” Having a phone available gives a sense of control and security to many drivers. Many people are required to have a phone on or about them for a multitude of reasons. The phone is a connection to one’s social network, which can be leveraged to spread behaviors. This PSA resorts to name-calling and labeling by the explicitness of its message, i.e. if you drive distracted, then you are a “bad guy.” This can create a label in those who already call and text while driving and influence their behavior by continuing to do so (8). As defined by labeling theory, this label causes conformity to the label and thus promotes the behavior that the label seeks to eliminate. In this case, since texting and calling while driving make an individual a “bad guy” then they should continue to text and call while driving.
While distracted driving impacts all people on the road, the largest group of offenders are young drivers (1). In addition to this population being the most prevalent offenders of texting or calling and driving is the fact that they are also the least experienced drivers. As this population would be the best suited for a targeted intervention, the “Cars PSA” lacks a relatable messenger for this population as a manner of diverting psychological reactance.
The message of the PSA stops just short of saying that driving distracted causes accidents. Rather, the PSA relies on visual cues to make this connection between distraction and accidents. These cues are a car driving through a plane and into a sewage pump truck, a car that is swerving and yelling, and a car with visual impairment ramming into a police car. While these images display accidents, they accidents are happening to cartoon characters and are occurring in a humorous manner. These “accidents” are from the movie and are intended to be fun for the viewer. There is no injury; there is not even a human element within the entire advertisement. The “Cars” character getting into the displayed accident is not hurt, dented, or dead. Because the messengers of distracted driving in this PSA are entirely unrelatable to young drivers, the message of distracted driving is less effective and reactance is not deflected. Furthermore, the humorous nature of the accidents lack any of the severity of an actual accident and may cause reinforcement of an optimistic bias with respect to accidents as a result of distracted driving.
It is fair to ask whether or not this PSA was directed at young drivers. If it was not directed at young drivers, then there is criticism due as the behavior of distracted driving is more prevalent with young drivers and the most effective intervention would be with less experienced young drivers. However, if this PSA was not directed at young drivers, then to whom was the message directed?
Cars 2 is a G-rated animated film that was released by Disney and Pixar. It is a film that is billed on several websites as a movie for kids and families (9). This is consistent with most if not all Disney films. However, is this an acceptable source of a messenger for teens or for another group? While the characters of “Cars 2” like so many Disney characters are widely recognizable, they are intended to appeal to a younger audience that is also an unlicensed audience and not a current risk for distracted driving. The media cache that “Cars” characters possess is with the same audience that lines up at Disney World for Mickey Mouse’s, or rather Lightning McQueen’s, autograph. While the parents of young children may find some relevance to the messengers of this ad, the fact remains that the messenger is ineffective in as much as the “Cars” characters are in no way similar to the intended audience. In fact the only relevance that the “Cars” characters have as messengers on the danger of distracted driving is that they are similar to cars in that they are cars themselves.
Figure 1: From the Disney "Cars 2" website, offering a mobile phone application that allows the user to race as "Cars" characters (9).
The hope of this PSA was to capitalize on a largely popular summer film with easily recognizable characters who could help policy makers, namely the US Department of Transportation, by bringing the issue of distracted driving to a level of importance within the media agenda and the public agenda. This is Agenda Setting Theory and it was initially effective in that the PSA pre-dated the release of Cars 2 and received a fair amount of media attention (10-12). However, it remains to be seen if the PSA has a real impact on reducing distracted driving statistics. It is also important to note that the website advertised at the end of the PSA
The first step in creating an effective intervention for distracted driving is to deflect as much reactance as possible. This can be done through explicitness of the message, reason and rationale for the modified behavior, an aversion to dominance by the message, and by choosing an effective messenger for young drivers who are tempted to drive distracted.
The “Cars” PSA did little to deflect reactance. The message was clear, but there was no reason provided as to why the prevention of texting and calling while driving is important. The first step in altering the PSA intervention is to explain the threats caused by distracted driving and presenting the reasons and rationale to the target audience (15). While statistics regarding the risk of an accident occurring while someone is driving distracted are important in relation to reason, statistics alone have not yet caused a reduction in distracted driving. The reason and rationale that should be provided to the target audience are as follows. A car can be a weapon. Driving distracted is a reckless practice that kills and injures thousands of people every year. In coupling these reasons with an emotional message, reactance can be deflected. Consider the “Faces of Distracted Driving” program sponsored by the US Department of Transportation where the stories of distracted drivers, victims, and surviving family members tell the stories of accidents caused by distracted driving (14). Examples can be found at this site <www.distraction.gov/content/faces/index.html>. These messages are highly emotional and stay away from blaming any individual for the accidents and casualties, so that no one is labeled as a “bad guy” like in the “Cars” PSA. The messengers are young drivers, family members, and victims. The message is that texting and calling while driving causes accidents. It is important to make the implied message of the “Cars” PSA stated by declaring that distracted driving causes accidents.
The explicitness of stating that distracted driving causes accidents will also deflect reactance. By providing a concrete message, the message is given more attention and is perceived as being more credible (15). The importance of effectiveness must not be lost to explicitness. In order to achieve attention and behavioral modification with the target audience of young drivers, the language in the message should not be authoritarian, but rather present a choice. The “Cars” PSA elects the authoritarian method by the visuals associated with the statements “Never While Driving”, “No Calling”, and “No Texting.” As a result of this authoritarian tone, reactance is increased (15). A more effective way of making a statement relative to texting and calling while driving would utilize a choice for the viewer. By revising the “Cars” PSA statement to “You have the choice to drive safely. There is some evidence that suggests texting and calling while driving leads to accidents. Is your life worth the distraction of a cell phone?” the viewer still perceives a choice as to the behavior relative to the PSA. The message is still clear and can be supported with further reason and even statistics. Dominance is not needed to promote this message and without dominance, the message becomes more effective due to deflected reactance among the target audience. Furthermore, this is a statement that affirms what many people already believe, which also deflects reactance.
The “Cars” PSA insists on labeling distracted drivers as “bad guys.” As has been previously mentioned, this label can create an expectation of distracted driving in those who already drive distracted (8). In altering a PSA on distracted driving, dichotomy of good and bad should be avoided. By avoiding labels, expectations from labeling theory are also avoided (8). Furthermore, the visual in the “Cars” PSA implies retribution as a police car begins to flash his sirens. This creates a linear connection between a behavior committed by an individual who is now bad and must now be punished. While the consequences of a punishment associated with a behavior can be effective for setting social norms, the statement implied by the “Cars” PSA is not entirely accurate as 35 states currently have distracted driving laws (1). Instead of making the individual “bad,” a new PSA could focus on what is needed to be a “good” driver. This will allow for the PSA to introduce behaviors, habits, and even technologies that will make the targeted audience want to be involved in a “good” driver movement. This can be done in one PSA, but also through a series of PSAs on the subject of distracted driving.
As technology develops, distraction from available technology can be addressed and reduced. There are currently mobile applications available for download that provide a number of solutions to distraction. Drive Safe.ly is an app available for all smartphones. While it does come at a modest cost, the app will read any texts or emails received aloud to the driver. An optional automatic response system is also available so that the texter or e-mailer knows that the recipient is driving (16). Sprint has also released a mobile app called “Drive First.” For a modest monthly fee, the driver’s calls are automatically sent to voicemail, incoming texts receive an automated response, and businesses and parents can control the settings on the phone (17). Finally, even insurance agencies are becoming involved in distracted driving safety apps as State Farm Insurance has released its “On the Move” app. This app is free and when activated by the user all texts receive an automatic response that the user has set up (18). Potentially even more effective would be even more free applications and a potential insurance discount for those drivers who have and use a distracted driving application on their mobile phone. These apps could someday become a part of driver’s education courses. Also beneficial to concerned parents is that with automated responses, one can always check to make sure that the young driver is using their distracted driving application.
The messenger in the “Cars” PSA is not a suitable messenger for young adults who are at the greatest risk for driving distracted. As explicitness and reason and rationale deflect reactance, so too can a proper messenger deflect reactance. The most important feature in this new messenger will be similarity to the target audience. This similarity between audience and messenger will deflect reactance (19). Further deflecting reactance will be the invocation of a core value and a message that affirms what the target audience already believes.
As opposed to the animated “Cars” characters, a would suggest that a more appropriate messenger would be an individual like Jacy Good, the survivor of a distracted driving incident that took the lives of both her parents on the day she graduated from college (14). While Jacy does not have the same name recognition as the “Cars” characters, she has first hand experience of a distracted driving accident and is a lot more similar to young drivers then animated characters from a Disney film. However, despite Jacy’s qualifications, the US Department of Transportation may be looking to utilize agenda setting theory. In this circumstance, the PSA messenger should be someone who is not only similar to young drivers, but also easily recognizable, popular to the age group of young drivers, and willing to attach their name and fame to the cause of distracted driving. Consideration should be given to musical performing artists such as Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and Rihanna. Popular “teen” film actors should also be considered. As opposed to selecting “Cars” as the vehicle for a distracted driving PSA, what if the “Twilight” series of films had been tapped for messengers like Robert Pattinson, Kristen Stewart, or Taylor Lautner? Based upon the familiarity of these individuals with the target audience, they make for much more similar messengers than animated cars. Whoever the messenger is, the ultimate need is that young drivers see a peer and consider themselves similar to the messenger. This will deflect reactance (19).
As mentioned above, the core value invoked in mobile phone marketing is freedom. An intervention for distracted driving should also invoke a core value. By looking at both mobile phone commercials and car commercials, two core values reoccur, freedom and security. By applying the core values associated with cars and mobile phones to distracted driving apps, the viewer can feel secure in being a safe driver and enjoy the freedom of the open road without the distraction of a cell phone. By invoking these core values, the target audience has an emotional response that can be utilized to change the behavior of distracted driving.
The “Cars” PSA is an effective means of bringing attention to distracted driving, but it is not suitable for the target audience and will not bring about behavior change. In fact, due to reactance, it can cause the audience to value distracted driving more than safe driving practices. For this reason, reactance should be measured in all public health interventions. Similarity between audience and messenger, core values, explicitness, reason, and affirmation of audience beliefs will also aid in deflecting reactance. While the “Cars” PSA was severely deficient in these areas of deflecting reactance, a suitable and effective PSA could be made that will help bring about behavior change relative to distracted driving, especially with respect to cell phone usage.
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