Plain packaging

Taking plain packaging to the streets


Edit: after a good comment on Facebook, I’ve made some amendments to the article for the sake of clarity. Also, I just want to point out that I’m simply running with an idea and don’t think that this is the solution to the problem of road safety – more like a possible tactic to help while it’s still far from ideal.


I’m going to try to keep this one short and to the point. Just like plain packaging.

A few years ago someone had the bright idea to put disgusting images and bold messages on the front of cigarette packages. Obviously, this would convey to the consumer of the filthy little things that they may want to reconsider their actions.

Everyone seems to agree that it has been working.

It seems to me that plain packaging was a move that needed to happen because of a collection of variables that are difficult to deal with.

Firstly, we know that cigarettes are bad. Really bad, in fact. Well, good for the companies that profit from it, but bad for everything and everyone else.

And secondly, we seem to accept that we can’t legally just tell them to stop making them. I mean, we could, but it would open up a Pandora’s box of things we should either ban or not ban, and it seems much easier to not do that, being a “free market”, and all that.

So we leave the root of the problem alone and try to just change the behaviour of the people who are free to buy it, and who are still bombarded with plenty of invitations to smoke (name two serious movies that don’t have main characters who are constantly smoking).

If we accept that we can’t completely solve for the source of the problem, then plain packaging seems like a decent idea, and has had a decent amount of success.


Can anyone think of another situation where we have something that has a high social, economic, and health cost, that we wish would be better, but one that nobody wants to give up?

Yes, you there, in the back… Well, yes, that is certainly a possibility – maybe it is time we had plain packaging for our roads!

Now, to be clear – everyone needs to be conscious of their own actions when it comes how that effects their own safety, but as we all know, the people who present the biggest danger on the roads are those behind the wheel of cars (etc). As such, this is primarily who this is aimed at.

See, we already do it for some specific audiences with ads on TV, and we have for quite some time. So maybe what I mean to say is that we need more if it, and to be more bold about it.

Maybe not even more of it, but maybe we need to start putting it in different places. I’m talking about billboards, bus-backs, posters, ads on bus shelters. Places where people can see them, when they need to be seeing them. Make them graphic, and make them bold. Basically, something approaching a campaign of propaganda, except, you know, because we care.

This message could easily give the impression that roads are a killing field and therefore have the unfortunate consequence of deterring people from cycling and walking, so that could be a real problem, and would need considering.

Statistics are good and all, but they aren’t very personal. We need images. I don’t know how we do that without exploiting the victims of road trauma (maybe just hide the faces?), and there is always the issue of people being “forced” to see gruesome images, but if it’s OK for cigarettes, I say it should be OK for roads.

It doesn’t even have to just be graphic images, it could be a family photo with a child cut out, on a billboard of a busy intersection, with text saying something like, “someone’s text message was more important than little Cassie’s life”. Whatever it is, just something real and devastating.

We need to take it from the TV and onto the streets, while people are driving, while they are in the moment, rather than on the sofa where they get to instantly forget about it as soon as the ad ends. Cars already have an insulating effect on their occupants, so we need a message to penetrate the illusion in real-time, that driving is no big deal, that it doesn’t demand our utmost care and consideration, and that one bad decision can end people’s lives and have a devastating ripple-effect on those around them.

We need to be plain packaging the product at the point of purchase while the decision-making process is in progress. That is when we get to confront ourselves. That is when the opportunity to consider and change our behaviour is at it’s most relevant.

Would it work? Do you think it would have the same effect as it has for smoking, if any?


Header image: source