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Graphic Texas Ads Aim to Discourage Drinking and Driving - 2002-10-23

Alcohol-related traffic accidents killed some 17,000 people last year in the United States. To try to reduce those numbers, state officials struggle to come up with compelling ad campaigns to discourage drinking and driving. Texas is trying something new and graphic - it's airing a public service announcement on TV stations, featuring a disfigured drunk driving victim.

Like other states, the Texas Department of Transportation has looked for clever ways to say "don't drive and drive." This public service announcement tries to make young drinkers feel foolish by having elderly people say typical "morning-after" lines.

"Man I really got blasted last night. I was so drunk I was blowing chunks until 2 a.m. All I know is that I didn't have this tattoo yesterday!"

Commercials like this one and increased law enforcement seem to be helping to reduce drunk driving a little each year. "The problem is Texas still leads the nation in alcohol-related traffic fatalities," said Janet Lea.

Janet Lea is Vice President of Sherry Matthews Advocacy Marketing in Austin. Her firm creates traffic safety ad campaigns for the state. Nearly 1,800 people died in alcohol-related crashes in Texas last year. More than 25,000 people were injured. Many accidents involve underage drinkers, so about a year ago, Ms. Lea's agency held focus groups asking 15 to 20-year-olds what kinds of ads would stop them from drinking and driving. "And what they said was you have to show us real consequences, you have to show us things that are graphic, we don't pay attention to subtle messages," she said. "And when we heard that from them we realized that we had maybe soft-peddled the issue before."

Then Ms. Lea read about a drunk driving victim named Jacqueline Saburido. Ms. Saburido was 20 when she left her home in Venezuela and came to Austin three years ago to study English. One night she was riding with friends when their car was hit by a drunk driver. Two of her friends were killed in the crash. She was severely burned and left scarred and disfigured. Janet Lea asked the young woman if she would appear in this year's anti-drunk driving ads. Ms. Saburido says the answer was easy. "I feel very good to do it because I know people can understand a little more what happened to me why my life changed completely so I think for me for everybody it's a good opportunity," said Jacqueline Saburido.

The ad agency took special measures when videotaping Ms. Saburido. It hired a lighting director from Los Angeles who used soft lighting to protect her sensitive eyes and improve her appearance. The agency consulted with child psychologists to make sure the ad wouldn't frighten children. It airs after 9 p.m.

When the commercial begins, all that's visible is a framed photograph of a beautiful young woman with flowing dark hair. The picture is held by Ms. Saburido's misshapen hands.

"My name is Jacqueline Saburido. This is a picture of me before I was hit by a drunk driver, before the car caught fire, before two of my friends died, before I needed more than 40 operations."

Jacqueline Saburido lowers the photograph to reveal her face. The contrast is startling. Wearing a black hat, she has no hair, no ears. There are two black holes where a nose should be. Only one eye appears open. She looks seriously at the camera.

SABURIDO:This is me after being hit by a drunk driver.

ANNOUNCER: Don't drink and drive... ever.

State officials say the public response to the ad has been overwhelmingly positive. But there's still the question of whether it will work.

Outside at the University of Texas at Austin sits senior Melanie Sharp. She says this anti-drunk driving ad affected her more than any other. "Last night I went out and I had," she said. "I wasn't driving but my friend and I, we both had three drinks and I asked him to wait like longer before we left the bar because just even thinking about this ad campaign having it in my head and even when we were in the car and he was driving me back to my house I still felt a little uncomfortable with us even being on the road being over like the legal alcohol limit or whatnot."

But her classmate Chance Robertson says when his roommates saw the ad, they made disparaging remarks. "And I think that's the kind of one of the things that may happen a lot is that because it is so gruesome and because it is so scary a lot of people just won't even hear it," said Chance Robertson.

Both students believe the ad will affect more women than men. In addition to airing the commercial, the Texas Department of Transportation will distribute copies of a feature article on Ms. Saburido and discussion guides to high schools around the state. It will place ads in college newspapers. Also, Janet Lea's ad agency will send schools copies of a poster that features a large close-up photograph of Jacqueline Saburido. It reads, "Not everyone who gets hit by a drunk driver dies."