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In New Seat Belt Ads, It's Goodbye
Dummies, Hello High-Impact

By Glen Johnson  Associated Press
WASHINGTON — They've become popular figures in shopping malls and inspired the name of a rock band, but the crash test dummies made famous in seat belt ads are taking a back seat to a new set of more shocking TV spots.

Photo
AP/Wide World
Crash dummies Larry and Vince

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has decided that ads featuring the dummies affectionately known as Vince and Larry will be replaced next month with a pair of graphic ads aimed at breaking through the recent plateau in seat belt usage.

Instead of seeing lifelike dummies dust themselves off after a crash, viewers will see human actors engaged in common moments that are cut short by an automobile accident.

In one spot, titled "Ice Cream," a husband out buying ice cream to satisfy his pregnant wife's midnight craving has his car hit head-on as he pulls out of the driveway. In a second ad, titled "Cruising," teen-agers in two cars cruising down a street giggle until one of the cars is smashed by a speeding van.

After each scene, the caption on the screen asks, "Didn't see that coming? No one ever does. Buckle up."

"The idea behind the campaign was to really take a bold step and change our direction to reach those users who are taking short trips but not wearing their seat belts," said Ken Ulmer, spokesman for the Advertising Council. It is marketing the spots, made by the Chicago ad agency Leo Burnett, for the traffic safety administration.

"We are not reaching part-time users, people who take trips to the store or out to pick up their kids. The statistics show they are at risk, too," Ulmer said.

Vince and Larry have been successful seat belt salesmen for 15 years. With their gray jumpsuits and revolving heads, they have an appeal similar to that of the hapless but durable Star Wars tin man, C-3PO. The pair is mobbed at mall appearances and have had their name reach into the music industry thanks to the band, Crash Test Dummies.

Beyond their public appeal, Vince and Larry have gotten results. In 1985, about 21 percent of the driving population wore seat belts; in 1996, the figure was up to 68 percent.

That, however, is about where it has stayed.

President Clinton has announced a goal of getting seat belt usage up to 85 percent by the end of the year, but traffic safety experts concede there are some high-risk drivers who will never wear seat belts. The new campaign is focusing on the casual wearer — someone who is not against buckling up, but who does not do so on every trip.

Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator and a former emergency room physician, pushed for the new advertising approach after watching a series of gruesome traffic commercials aired in Australia.

The challenge for the U.S. ad makers was to walk the fine line between spurring people to action and repulsing them into disbelief.

"What will inhibit people is if they say, `Yes, but that's not really me,"' said Emily Soell, a member of the Advertising Council's advertising review committee.

"What was most important was the line afterwards, because that implies that the people survived and gets people to say, `Yes, with an accident, you never see it coming, so I better buckle up."'

Ulmer, the Advertising Council spokesman, said the crash test dummies are in "semi-retirement." He expects them to be used again in children's programming.

Soell, meanwhile, said Vince and Larry are victims of their own success.

"After a while, even the best advertising begins to blur itself because people have seen it so much that they no longer listen," she said.

"People found it so entertaining they end up paying attention more to the entertainment value: `Oh, I wonder what the seat belt dummy is going to do now."'

The Advertising Council, a nonprofit group that works to gain free air time and print space for public service announcements, will begin showing the commercials in all major advertising markets by mid-February.

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