Mission: to upset, outrage and appal: 25 years of the TAC – and their 25 most powerful ads

Victoria’s Transport Accident Commission has just celebrated its 25th birthday. Robin Hicks looks back at the most powerful ads in its history, and wonders what makes effective road safety advertising.

When the TAC was created in 1987, it declared a mission to ‘upset, outrage and appal’ Victorians to reduce the number of road deaths in the state.

For an ad agency, that is quite a brief.

The TAC began advertising in December 1989, appointing Grey Melbourne, an agency that it has worked with ever since. Twenty-three years later, the state boasts the safest roads in Australia.

When the campaign started, the road death toll in Victoria was 776 in a year. Last year, the total was down to 287.

Of course, the TAC’s progress in reducing road casualties is not just about effective advertising. Safer cars, better roads, government legislation, heavier police enforcement and heftier fines have helped. But these factors are at play in other states too – and road accidents are still more common beyond Victoria’s borders.

“Given that Australians live in a fairly homogenous society, the only major difference between the states has been the TAC campaign,” says Randal Glennon, GM of Grey Melbourne, who has run the business for the last decade.

The TAC’s ads – of which there have been about 160 TV spots since the campaign began (and hundreds more on billboards, radio and in press) – have stuck in the consciousness of the Victorian motorist over the years like haunting memories.

The TAC’s most memorable ad?

The most memorable is probably ‘Night shift’, the first ad to tackle driver tiredness in 1994, which saw a kombi van smash into a truck (see our list of the top 25 most powerful TAC ads below; warning, some are NSFW). But there have been many others, with slogans such as ‘If you drink, then drive, you’re a bloody idiot’ having entered the Victorian vernacular.

Often controversial – not only because of their graphic nature – the TAC provoked the wrath of motorcyclists with a campaign in April this year, with bikers arguing in the comment thread on Mumbrella that the ad unfairly portrayed bikers as more dangerous than car drivers. The campaign led to a barrage of complaints to the advertising watchdog.

A worry for the TAC could be that the effectiveness of its advertising is waning – although the brand says this is not the case. When the TAC’s first ad aired on TV, it had an immediate impact. It sparked a huge debate in the media, and, along with increased enforcement and the introduction of booze buses, led to the road toll plunging by 50% over the next three years.

But back then, the campaign was new and shocking. Twenty-five years on, Victorians know what to expect from the TAC’s approach.

Advertising strategy: not shock – reality

The TAC’s senior manager of road safety and marketing John Thompson is at pains not to use the word shock.

“Bringing trauma into the living room”

“We do not use shock tactics. It’s about reality – without being gratuitous,” he says. “Most people have never seen a serious road accident. The closest they come is sitting in a traffic jam after an accident has happened. We need to bring the reality of road trauma into the living room.”

Nigel Dawson, creative director at Grey Melbourne, a 16-year veteran on the account, says: “Sometimes you don’t need to hit people over the head with a cricket bad. But the more ‘ad-like’ the idea, the more you distance yourself from reality.”

The TAC counts on three different strategies to tackle the tired creative idea of people dying in horrible ways on Victoria’s roads: emotion, enforcement and education.

Glennon explains: “Hard-hitting ads showing the emotional outcomes of driving over the speed limit will pick off the low-hanging fruit. They are easy to convince – but are not the ones most at risk. Emotive advertising also provides a sobering backdrop to communicating to tougher audiences.

“Then there are those who simply do not believe that slowing down a bit will have any effect. Education in the form of simple science convinced many of them. But the harder nuts will speed on regardless. The only thing that slows them down is the possibility of being caught and fined. Hence the enforcement advertising, always backed by police activity.”

Creatively, the TAC abides by four principles:

  • Do ensure that every ad leaves us thinking ‘That could so easily be me’
  • Do be as shocking as you like
  • Do be as emotional as possible
  • Do emphasise the link between drink/drive, speed, etc – and real crashes

TAC started out with a focus on drink driving and speeding. The focus has broadened in line with the dangers on Victoria’s roads. Now drug driving and distractions such as using a mobile phone, particularly texting, have made life more difficult for Dawson and his creative team.

Production: no cutting corners

Last week’s Christmas enforcement shoot

TAC ads are very expensive to make. A shoot will invariably run over three days or more, often with a cast of hundreds. Major roads need to be closed. Police time is used, since real police officers always feature in ads. There can be no short cuts.

“We have serious cost issues. We can’t cheat. We have to be realistic. And as a statutory body, we have to take health and safety extremely seriously,” says Thompson.

Over the years, the TAC has used Australia’s top directors, who have been known to drop other projects to work on TAC projects. John Lyon, Garth Davis, Bruce Hunt, Rey Carlson, David DenneenColin Skyba, Jeffrey Darling. “The directors we’ve used are a who’s who of Australian advertising. We need grown ups who get it,” says Thompson.

Media strategy: is less more?

The TAC’s media budget has grown from $10m in the 1990s to $22.5m this year. “Our budget has increased steadily. But of course, so have media costs,” says Thompson.

Not that the nature of TAC’s commercials require much repetition. “People see our ad, they hate it, and they don’t want to see it again,” says Glennon.

TAC drug driving billboard

Not all of the budget goes on TV. Roughly 30% of TAC’s media spend goes on outdoor, which has drawn criticism in the past for distracting motorists with screaming billboards.

“My point of sale – or rather point of speeding – medium is the roadside sign,” says Thompson. “This is not the sort of media strategy you can rely on a 23 year-old media planner to handle. We need coverage across the whole of Victoria – a state the size of the UK. The campaign has to talk to Victorians everywhere, all year round, and we need grown up media thinkers.”

In-game billboards

The TAC also invests heavily in sponsoring the AFL (through the TAC Cup), and also in digital. Three years ago, it took its campaign into the world of video games to get its message to younger drivers. The TAC struck a deal that saw its ads run on billboards in the background of XBOX 360 and PS3 games.

Australia’s longest client-agency relationship?

Not quite. “There have been longer such as GPY&R and Arnott’s and Kraft and JWT,” says Darren Woolley, MD of pitch doctor TrinityP3, who worked at Grey from 1990 to 1995 as a copywriter. “But there are none with the consistent profile, awards or effectiveness recognition.”

Award-winner: The Ripple Effect

Grey Melbourne has won many awards for its TAC work, at Cannes, One Show and D&AD. Among the most high profile in recent times was The Ripple Effect, which told the story of Luke Robinson’s death from 26 different people’s perspectives, including his family.

But by its own admission, Grey has been a victim of its own success with TAC, and the agency has been pigeonholed by the industry as having little else to show but its TAC work, despite having other accounts such as Leggo’s.

TAC has not worked exclusively with Grey. Over the years, it has also worked with the now defunct shops The Moult Agency and Pure D’Arcy, and also with Clemenger BBDO Melbourne, GPY&R Melbourne and Naked Communications, which created the highly acclaimed Speed Town campaign. The tiny provincial town of Speed was renamed Speed Kills, which marked the TAC’s first foray on Facebook in 2011.

The TAC team

Nigel Dawson, John Thompson, Randal Glennon

The TAC ad account stands out for the continuity – critics would say lack of diversity – of the people working on it.

Nigel Dawson, Grey Melbourne’s creative director and chairman of the Melbourne Advertising and Design Club, is only the second creative director to lead the account, which was kicked off by Greg Harper and Stewart Byfield, who created the logo.

John Thompson, the fourth marketing director, has run the account for eight years – after Ann Randal, Prue Lovell and Ben Holgate.

There have been just two business directors, Debbie Kendall and latterly Randal Glennon.

The agency keeps things fresh with a continual stream of young creatives. Also important to note is that the TAC has worked with Sweeney Research from the very beginning. The firm conducts studies on the impact of TAC’s ads.

The TAC Model

Before the TAC was founded, Victorians involved in road accidents had to go through the courts to prove fault. This was costly and often unjust, says Thompson. The TAC concept was to act as a third party insurance provider, funded by a portion of a car registration fee, to give automatic cover to all Victorians. Critically, as a statutory body, the TAC is unaffected by changes of government.

“The TAC is a government authority, but essentially it’s an insurance company that covers anyone regardless of blame. For life,” says Thompson. “It’s in the TAC’s interest to keep costs as low as possible. So they do everything possible to keep deaths down.”

Road trauma costs Victoria $4.5bn dollars a year – a conservative estimate, says Thompson. $1bn a year is spent on TAC’s clients.

The commission is staffed by 840 people, with only 15 people – including the marketing team – working in prevention. The rest work servicing the TAC’s clients.

The model has been exported to New Zealand, and is also used in Canada.

The TAC brand

As familiar as the swoosh?

Thompson might be exaggerating when he says that the TAC brand is “more powerful in Victoria that Coles, Nike or Coca-Cola.” But awareness of TAC is high and its logo – unchanged since the beginning – is a familiar sight on roadsides and in living rooms across the state.

The brand’s YouTube channel has more than 5,200 subscribers and has had more than 20m views. Earlier this month, the TAC uploaded a 13-minute video to mark its 25th birthday.

Copied the world over

Last month, four TAC commercials were used by the Chinese government. Two were remade, and two re-voiced. Just before they ran, the Chinese government asked the TAC if they could use its logo in the ads.

Over the years, TAC ads have either been remade or revoiced by government departments in the European Union, the UK, Ireland, South Africa, Vietnam and Bosnia-Herzegovina. The strategy has been used wholesale in New Zealand.

The TAC’s 2005 drink drive ad Haunted bears an uncanny resemblance to the Think UK campaign that ran three years later. Frustratingly for Grey Melbourne, Think UK’s agency AMV BBDO won more lions at Cannes with their effort.

25 of TAC’s most powerful ads

GIRLFRIEND – 1989 (Drink Drive)
The TAC’s first TV ad introduced the immortal slogan, ‘If you drink, then drive, youre a bloody idiot’

BEACH ROAD – 1990 (Speed)
The TAC’s second TV ad featured a boy killed by a speeding driver.

COUNTRY KIDS 1991 (Concentration)
This ad targeted younger drivers, warning of the dangers of losing concentration.

BONES – 1992 (Seatbelts)
That serious injury can result from not wearing a seatbelt is driven home by the slogan ‘Belt up, or suffer the pain’.

JOEY – 1992 (Drink Drive)
The ‘bloody idiot’ idea is brutally born out by a drink driver who kills his brother.

NIGHT SHIFT – 1994 (Fatigue)
The one TAC spot that needs no introduction in Victoria.

MUM IN A HURRY – 1995 (Speed)
One of the most confronting car crash scenes ever filmed in Australia showed the dangers of being in a hurry.

BUSH TELEGRAPH – 1996 (Drink Drive)
This ad brought home the perils of drink driving to country-living Victorians.

LENNON’S CHRISTMAS – 1996 (Drink Drive)
So this is Christmas! A young girl sings John Lennon’s ‘Happy Christmas’ as an ironic backdrop to a emergency trauma unit during the festive season.

10K’s LESS – 1997 (Speed)
The first TAC ad to tackle low-level speeding.

DON’T GET IN – 1997 (Passengers)
This was the first time car accidents were shown to cause of long-term brain injuries.

YOUNG COPS – 1998 (Speed)
Complacent speeders were targeted here: “120’s not fast – not on this road”

PINBALL – 1999 (Seatbelts)
The ‘pinball effect’ of people who don’t wear seatbelts is shown here.

THE PUB – 2000 (Drink Drive)
This ad shows how drink driving can end you up behind bars.

NEVER – 2000 (Drink Drive)
What starts out like a clichéd car ad ends with a weeping father.

SLO MO – 2002 (Speed)
What a difference slowing down by 5km/h can make…

NO ACCIDENT/THE WIFE – 2004/2005 (Speed)
“Even at 5k’s over, you’re breaking the law”

HAUNTED – 2005 (Drink Drive)
This was the ad that inspired the Think UK campaign from 2008, as mentioned above. Similar, isn’t it?

The death of a woman shown in reverse, to warn of the dangers of low level speeding.

PROTECTIVE CLOTHING – 2008 (Motorcycles)
Why wearing leather is always a good idea for bikers.

LEVELS – 2008 (Drink Drive)
An education campaign with the feel of a beer ad ends with the line, “if you think you’re over the limit you probably are.”

PICTURES OF YOU – 2008 (Speed)
The Cure’s classic Pictures of you is sung by Angie Hart as families remember the people they have lost because of speeding drivers.

SWAP – 2009 (Drug Driving)
Casual dope smokers were the TAC’s target in 2009.

RIPPLE EFFECT – 2010 (Speed)
This award-winng ad reminded the viewer how the effect of someone dying in a car crash spreads.

SPEED TOWN – 2011 (Speed)
Naked Communications’ contribution to the TAC campaign.

Robin Hicks is the Melbourne editor of Mumbrella


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