Some public officials have a bad habit of following old fashioned traditions rather than considering what they are trying to achieve. We deserve the best.
There's no place to hide behind legalese
The best public campaigns focus on achieving an objective, the worst are bureaucratic and legalistic. Take this sign, from my neighbourhood. With wording like this it's no wonder it's been covered with graffiti!
Projectiles thrown at trams may cause serious injury or death to occupants. Offenders will be prosecuted.
Real campaigns must talk in the language of those we are trying to influence
Two of the most successful public campaigns in Australian history have been the Grim Reaper campaign of the 1980s, and the Victorian TAC (Transport Accident Commission) campaigns since 1989. In particular, the phrase: "If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot" has become a part of the Australian vernacular.
These campaigns were highly controversial at the time, as they were graphic, dramatic, and unlike anything before. Yet, they both worked - Australia successfully dodged the AIDS bullet, and dramatically reduced the road toll. An important part of their success was the way that their language was direct - not at all inhibited by legalese.
More recently, a series of ads to educate young men about alcohol fuelled violence have used the device of "championship moves". Again, these ads use language and visuals that are consistent with the way young men act and speak. Likewise, the Save-a-Mate program talks to young people about drugs in a way that is realistic.
Stop with the bureaucracy and legal threats
Thankfully, most public officials are less bureaucratic than my local signage. This New York example of a campaign against train surfing is direct, and doesn't mention one word of prosecution. In reality, the people that public service announcements are trying to talk to don't take much notice of legal sanctions. But, like the Grim Reaper, TAC and drugs campaigns, disincentives are those that affect them personally, like death, or social embarrassment.
We have no reason to use complex, legal language in communicating with our audience. Let's be honest, and direct. Everyone will benefit.
Let me know what you think.