Harvard Alcohol Project: Designated Driver

In 1988, the Center launched the U.S. Designated Driver Campaign as a new component of the nation’s comprehensive approach to preventing alcohol-related traffic fatalities and injuries. The campaign set out to demonstrate how a new social concept — the “designated driver” — could be imported from Scandinavia and rapidly diffused through American society via mass communication, catalyzing a fundamental shift in social norms relating to driving-after-drinking. All of the major Hollywood studios participated along with the ABC, CBS, and NBC television networks.

The New York Times reported on the campaign’s launch in a front page story on August 31, 1988:

The three major television networks and the Hollywood studios that produce most of their programming are joining in a coordinated attack against drinking and driving that will include dialogue in popular entertainment shows as well as public-service advertising…The Harvard Alcohol Project, as the cooperative effort is called, is intended “to model a new social norm.” While there have been informal attempts in the past to coordinate advertising and entertainment programming, “there has never been anything this organized,” said Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC.

Designated Driver Campaign "Life of the Party" poster on set of TV-show "CHEERS"The project broke new ground when TV writers agreed to insert drunken driving prevention messages, including frequent references to designated drivers, into scripts of top-rated television programs, such as “Cheers,” “L.A. Law,” and “The Cosby Show.” Entertainment not only mirrors social reality, but also helps shape it by depicting what constitutes popular opinion, by influencing people’s perceptions of the roles and behaviors that are appropriate to members of a culture, and by modeling specific behaviors. The strength of this approach is that short messages, embedded within dialogue, are casually presented by characters who serve as role models within a dramatic context, facilitating social learning. The project’s strategy was endorsed in a unanimous resolution of the board of directors of the Writers Guild of America, West. Over a four-year period, more than 160 prime-time programs incorporated sub-plots, scenes, and dialogue on the subject, including frequent references to the use of designated drivers.

At Harvard’s request, ABC, CBS, and NBC also aired frequent public service announcements (PSAs) during prime time encouraging the use of designated drivers. This was the first time that the three networks produced and sponsored simultaneous campaigns with the same message. Harvard’s public relations activities further reinforced the campaign, generating extensive news coverage.

According to industry estimates, the campaign received over $100 million each year in donated television airtime. The campaign soon became transformed into a national movement as a broad range of prominent individuals (e.g., President George Bush, President Bill Clinton, Surgeon General C. Everett Koop); government agencies (e.g., the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration [NHTSA], the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention); national organizations and advocacy groups (e.g., Mothers Against Drunk Driving); professional sports leagues (e.g., Major League Baseball [MLB], National Basketball Association [NBA]); major corporations (e.g., State Farm Insurance); and state and local police departments, endorsed and promoted the designated driver concept.

“Designated Driver” became a household phrase in the U.S. to such an extent that the term appeared in the 1991 Random House Webster’s College Dictionary. Public opinion polls documented the rapid, wide acceptance and strong popularity of the designated driver concept. According to the Roper Poll, the proportion of Americans serving as a designated driver reached 37% in 1991. Among Americans under the age of 30, 52% had actually been a designated driver, and among frequent drinkers, 54% had been driven home by a designated driver. By 1998, according to the Roper Poll, a majority of adults who drink had served as a designated driver and/or been driven home by one. Among frequent drinkers who consumed five or more drinks in the past seven days, 62% had served as a designated driver and/or been driven home by one.

When the campaign began in late 1988, annual alcohol-related traffic fatalities stood at 23,626. By 1994, fatalities had declined by 30%. A variety of factors were responsible for this striking progress, including new laws and strict enforcement. Polling data, cited above, suggests that the Designated Driver Campaign was an important factor, among the mix of factors, explaining the downward trend.

In 2017, Harvard Business School published a case study by Harvard Chan Professor Howard Koh and researcher Pamela Yatsko, examining the origins of the Center, lessons learned from the Designated Driver Campaign, and evidence of the campaign’s impact on alcohol-related traffic fatalities. The evaluation section of that study is here:

Jay A. Winsten, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Health Communication at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (photo: Sarah Sholes)

Harvard Business School Case Study:

Jay Winsten and the Designated Driver Campaign

Why did the Designated Driver Campaign succeed?

      1. The campaign’s message was narrowly focused, highly specific, and easily communicated. The Center did not attempt to address the entirety of alcohol use and abuse in American society. Rather, the Center took a highly complex problem, broke it down into separate, manageable components, and selected one component where there seemed to be a meaningful opportunity to achieve change at the time.
      2. The campaign’s message called for only a modest shift in behavior.  The message was not anti-alcohol. It said, “If you and your companions drink alcoholic beverages, drink in moderation — and take your turn as the Designated Driver who doesn’t drink at all.”
      3. Instead of a negative message (“Don’t drink and drive”), the campaign promoted a positive, empowering message (“The Designated Driver is the Life of the Party.”)
      4. There was a broad societal consensus about the need to address the problem of drunken driving, and there were no economic interests opposed to the campaign.
      5. The timing was right. Mothers Against Drunken Driving (MADD), launched in 1980, had built a strong foundation of public understanding of the drunk driving problem, and successfully advocated for tough laws that saved many lives. However, media attention to the problem declined sharply by the mid-1980s, and annual fatalities had leveled off. There was a need for a fresh, new idea to rejuvenate the anti-drunken driving movement.
      6. It was a comparatively easy step for Hollywood writers to support the campaign. The Designated Driver message could be incorporated into scripts with a line or two of dialogue — it did not require major changes in character development or the story line.
      7. The issue of drunken driving hit close to home for many members of the Hollywood community whose teenage children were potentially at risk. And, for many others in the creative community, alcoholism had touched the lives of a family member or friend; they were eager to help address any aspect of alcohol abuse. The issue had personal relevance for them.
      8. The campaign had the strong, sustained support of a leading member of the Hollywood community — Grant Tinker, former chairman of NBC and a prominent TV producer — who was held in enormously high regard by his peers. The campaign assembled an Advisory Board of key individuals in the Hollywood community, who were recruited with Grant Tinker’s leadership, to provide ready access to a broad array of directors, writers, producers, and actors who could help the campaign. The campaign also won formal endorsements from the boards of the Writers Guild of America, West and the Screen Actors Guild.
      9. The campaign did not rely on the intermediary of a public relations agency, which might have diminished the effort’s credibility. Center staff spent 25 workweeks in Hollywood meeting individually with 250 key people in the Hollywood community. The campaign asked for Hollywood’s support, but didn’t demand it, and was deeply respectful of the community’s core value of creative freedom.
      10. To capture and sustain the attention and interest of the creative community, the campaign employed numerous tactics to follow-up after face-to-face meetings — billboards on Sunset Strip, aerial advertising over Malibu beaches, designated driver posters and table cards for studios’ holiday parties, etc.  The steady drumbeat of messaging directed at the Hollywood creative community helped to sustain the attention of producers and writers.