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5 Lessons from LA’s “Carmageddon” on Effective Media Messaging

July 18, 2011

Even though construction closed a major freeway in Los Angeles this past weekend, “Carmageddon” didn’t happen as everyone feared. When I went running on Friday night, anticipating I’d see a sea of red taillights, I witnessed what looked more like the Rapture instead: near empty streets and the good people nowhere to be seen. Saturday was much the same.

For a state whose theme song should be “Don’t Fence Me In”, it was stunning that intractable Californians had listened to public officials and largely stayed home. The LA Times quoted Mayor Villaraigosa as saying, “We had hoped this would happen. People have answered the call. They have stepped up to the plate in recognizing that the best way to do this is to stay out of their cars.”

Perhaps it takes a massive media machine to get a city like L.A. to listen but I think there’s more to learn here. LA’s experience got me wondering what this can teach nonprofits and activists about effective media messaging.

  1. Wordsmith: The best messages are concise and evocative. It’s too early to tell if we’ll soon see “Carmageddon” like we do the overly paranoid term “Y2K”. Even so, it was useful. While writing this post, it saves me from writing “construction crews closed a major freeway in order to demolish a bridge which caused everyone to fear massive traffic jams.” Even though the title was stolen from a video game and hinged on a familiarity with the New Testament’s war to end all wars,it was easy to say and share. I found myself wishing people a “Good Carmageddon” weekend.

    via GOOD

  2. Share values but allow for different messages: Angelenos of all backgrounds want to avoid traffic. It’s something we universally hate. Throughout all the media generated about the 405 closure, the core value was avoiding traffic headaches. The messages that came from this value were all slightly different. Cyclists and public transportation activists saw the closure as cause for celebration and pedestrian enjoyment of the city. Meanwhile, a local TV station ABC 7 and an app designer Waze suggested ways to still drive but avoid the jams.
  3. Personalize the impact of the issue: Despite the logistical complexities of closing a large portion of a major freeway, it was clear how the audience would be affected as individuals. It was a story about the city but it would effect me and you directly. The idea of compounding the time we waste sitting in traffic turned off lots of people because we could envision how we’d experience it.
  4. Suggest Alternatives: The Carmageddon message was more than simply “Don’t Drive”. The media suggested that people could avoid the horrors of massive traffic delays, by staying home, shopping local, or having a barbeque or pool party. All of these sounded more fun (which brings me to my last point).
  5. Fun: One of my favorite parts of the media coverage was the race between Jetblue and the Wolfpack Hustle cyclists to Long Beach. As you may have heard, Jetblue airlines offered a $4 between Burbank and Long Beach, to fly over the expected Carmageddon traffic nightmare. Local cyclist activists flew from Burbank while their friends went by bicycle to see who’d get to Long Beach first. Not surprisingly, the cyclists won. The story captured the attention of corporate media and bloggers alike, demonstrating that even if we can’t drive, flying isn’t much better.

For these reasons and more, movements and organizations working to change public opinion on social issues should look to the Carmageddon experience as one to learn from. As a testament to its effective, only look as far as LA’s near empty streets.

Even without a national media machine at your disposal, we possess the means to shape digital media messages that are actually heard and heeded by the public. In short what would it look like for your organizations to create wordsmithed value-based, personalizable message that suggests alternatives and includes an element of fun?

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