Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Connecticut Chapter

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Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Connecticut Chapter

565 Washington Ave.
North Haven, Connecticut 06523
Telephone: (203) 234-6521
Fax: (203) 234-6523
Web site:



The campaign "Drunk Driving's a Serious Crime. Let's Treat It That Way" was originally created in 1997 for the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). It was deemed so effective, however, that it was later adopted by chapters around the United States. At no charge, advertising agency Pagano Schenck & Kay of Boston created a television commercial and four posters, approximately 13 by 16 inches, designed to look like warning or safety signs. Each poster compared the lenient sentences drunk drivers sometimes received with the tougher sentences handed out for much less serious offenses. All of the incidents cited in the campaign were true. In a nutshell, the campaign argued that the punishment for drunk driving did not fit the crime, that, in fact, the absurdly light sentences often given to drunk drivers trivialized the crime.

"Warning," a silent, stark 30-second television spot, showed white text rolling against a black screen. "Warning[,] this program is intended for public viewing," it began. "Unauthorized reproduction and exhibition many result in up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Which is a far greater punishment than what a drunk driver got after his car rammed into 18-year-old Mary Sanders[,] crushing her. The drunk driver spent three months in jail. Mary Sanders went into a coma. And died. Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It's a serious crime. Let's treat it that way."

Under the headline "NO GRAFFITI," one of the posters read, "Convicted persons may serve six months in jail. That's two months more than what a drunk driver served after smashing her car into 14-year-old Eric Zimmerman. Eric's head was pierced by a chain-link fence, which killed him." At the bottom appeared the line "Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It's a serious crime. Let's treat it that way."

A second poster used the headline "Keep Off the Grass." The copy read, "Punishable by a fine of up to $99. That's $99 more than what a drunk driver paid after crashing into the car carrying 15-year-old Kerry Dunlop. The drunk driver got off scot-free. Kerry's neck broke and she died." Another poster pointed out that a $50 fine for not curbing a dog was more severe than the punishment given to a drunk driver who smashed into Julia Coppola and her two daughters. The final poster said that shoplifters could be imprisoned for up to one year, which exceeded the time served by a drunk driver who slammed into Russ Gordon and Michael Albert, both 26 years old. The drunk driver received eight months, while "Russ and Michael received death."

There was an initial printing of 5,000, with MADD distributing the posters to all Connecticut police and state trooper departments. They also were sent to high schools and colleges, as well as to shopping malls. To introduce the campaign, MADD held an event on the state capitol steps to acknowledge Crime Victims Rights Week (April 13-19, 1997). Family members of each victim mentioned presented oversized posters to MADD representatives.


Candy Lightner founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving in California in 1980 after a drunken man with multiple convictions for driving while intoxicated ran down and killed her 13-year-old daughter. The man had been released from jail two days earlier for another hit-and-run drunk driving crash. By 1998 the national organization had an annual budget of $50 million and 600 chapters.

MADD worked to stop drunk driving and prevent underage drinking through new legislation, stronger enforcement of current laws, increased public awareness, and assistance to victims. The organization considered one of its major accomplishments to be the raising of the national drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984. As a nonprofit organization, MADD did not produce paid advertising, but the national headquarters and its chapters sometimes produced public service announcements (PSAs) for print, radio, and television. One of its most widely known programs was the "Tie One On for Safety" red ribbon project.

Pam Bingman, the assistant traffic manager at the Pagano Schenck & Kay advertising agency, had lost her brother to a drunk driver, and she and her family found out firsthand how lenient the sentence for drunk driving could be. When Bingman encouraged her employer to become involved, the agency agreed to offer its services to MADD's Connecticut chapter, of which Bingman was a member. "Our pro bono efforts have tended to revolve around education and youth and this seemed to fall nicely into that area," said Woody Kay, the agency's chairman and executive creative director. Thus was born the "Drunk Driving's a Serious Crime" campaign.


Every person who could drive, drink, and vote was considered part of the potential audience for the "Drunk Driving's a Serious Crime" campaign. Otherwise, the campaign did not seek out any particular demographic groups. Janice Heggie, executive director of the Connecticut chapter, said that the people most likely to read the posters were social drinkers, community leaders, responsible parents, and young people just beginning to understand the relationship between alcohol and driving. But Mothers Against Drunk Driving also hoped to reach people of influence, those in the state legislature or those who would contact state legislators with its message.


Organizations with messages similar to that of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, such as Students Against Driving Drunk (SADD), were allies, not competitors. "The most important work that we have learned to do is to partner with as many in the community as we can to stop drunk driving. I don't chose to promote competition against anybody," said Heggie. "We are trying to educate the liquor lobbyists. We are trying to educate our state legislators. There are many legislators who work with us to toughen the drunk driving laws that we have."

The beer and alcohol industry and the establishments that sold alcohol were not considered to be competitors. "Beer and alcohol distributors don't make people drive and drink. There isn't one beer company that wants people to drink their product and then drive," Heggie said. MADD also sought to assure people that it was not against the consumption of alcohol by those 21 and older. Thus, the competition was not any particular group of people or organizations but rather what could best be described as irresponsible drinking or ignorance of the effects of drinking and driving.


In 1998 the national headquarters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving distributed a public service announcement to the media and its chapters with the headline "On August 31, 1997 the world was victimized by another drunk driver." The copy continued, "Mothers Against Drunk Driving mourns the loss of Princess Diana as well as the other estimated 250 victims killed in our country over the Labor Day weekend. Isn't it time we say enough is enough?"


The charge of the Connecticut chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the ad agency was a general one: to increase awareness of the problem of drunk driving. What the "Drunk Driving's a Serious Crime" campaign ultimately attempted to do was to change attitudes and to make people aware of drunk driving and of the lenient sentences that were often handed down in drunk driving cases. "Drunk drivers are literally getting away with murder," said Amy Swearingen of Pagano Schenck & Kay. "Too often, the sentences given convicted drunk drivers are more suited to people who have torn labels off mattresses than to criminals who have killed innocent victims or destroyed their lives."

As the agency became involved in building the campaign, it was shocked by the lack of punishment for drunk driving. Staff members spent many hours talking to the families of the victims of drunk drivers. What always came up in these conversations was the fact that the families had a loved one who had either been killed or maimed while the perpetrator had received a minor sentence or none at all.

Talking to the victims' families was a natural move for the agency. To advertise a product, the agency would talk to the people who bought that product. To create advertising for MADD, the agency talked to the people the organization sought to serve. Dylan Lee, the copywriter for the campaign, and Carla Mooney, the art director, both spent many hours interviewing victims' families, whose names had been supplied by MADD. In addition, since Bingman had brought MADD to the agency's attention because she was the member of a victimized family, it was natural that the agency would look at the project through the eyes of the victims' families. "We were really trying to burst some bubbles," Kay said. "So many of us, including many of us here at the agency, are sort of living in a bubble when it comes to this. We don't realize that people are literally getting away with murder when it comes to drinking and driving." The depth of the commitment of the employees of Pagano Schenck & Kay to the campaign was significant. Lee, for example, came to feel so strongly about MADD and the campaign that he donated his annual bonus to the Connecticut chapter.

Pagano Schenck & Kay hoped that the campaign would motivate people to put pressure on their state legislators to increase the penalties for drunk driving violations. Although there was an ongoing debate about whether or not severe punishment helped to reduce crime, in this case MADD was pointing out that the issue was often a matter of not punishing lawbreakers at all. The campaign did not promote any specific punishment or even harsh punishment; rather, it used facts to demonstrate the disparity between the crime and the punishment.

One conversation Lee had with a mother inspired the direction the campaign eventually took. The mother, whose daughter had been killed by a drunk driver, had just returned from court. She was extremely upset because the driver had gotten off with a light sentence. To take her mind off her anger and frustration, she put a video into her VCR. When the standard warning about the punishment for illegal use of the video came on the screen, the mother was overcome. She realized that by copying the video she could receive a much heavier sentence than the person who had caused the death of her daughter.

There were a number of reasons the agency chose to make posters the main component of the campaign. Public service announcements tended to receive airtime on television in the early morning hours or at other times when viewership was low. In addition, it was difficult to get any radio time for PSAs or to get them placed in print media. MADD told the agency that, if it produced a series of posters, the organization would make certain they were distributed.

This led Pagano Schenck & Kay to think about the many signs that were displayed in schools and in businesses and other workplaces. Office walls, for example, were often covered with signs on safety, government regulations, or company policies for employees and visitors. The signs were sometimes required by the government or were a part of company training. The agency concluded that, because employers displayed such signs, they might be willing to display a strong message about an issue as important as drunk driving.


The television spot and four posters garnered the top prize in the 1997 Hatch Awards, New England's largest advertising show, and first place in the 1998 John O'Toole Public Service Advertising Awards, hosted by the American Association of Advertising Agencies. The campaign also won a Clio and awards at the One Show and from Communications Arts. The Connecticut chapter's campaign was so well received that the national headquarters sold the posters for use across the United States.

Boston Business Journal reported that for every 1,000 arrests of people driving while they were intoxicated, 347 offenders were put in jail or placed on probation in 1997, compared to 151 in 1986. The treatment of offenders appeared to have changed, although there was no firm evidence of the role the campaign had played in this development.


Hanrahan, William. "Ads Are MADD about Law's Inequities." Waterbury (Connecticut) Republican American, April 24, 1997.

Jones, Sarah, and Gianatasio, David. "A Hatch with No Single Winner: Arnold, Pagano Share Top Prize." Adweek New England Advertising Week, September 29, 1997.

"What's New Portfolio." Adweek New England Advertising Week, Monday, May 12, 1997.

                                    Chris John Amorosino