Youth Violence Interventions

"Anti-violence" Advertising Campaigns

A variety of organizations have sponsored public education campaigns to promote violence prevention (e.g., 100 Black Men, "Operation Peace" in Philadelphia). Several local police departments have implemented public information campaigns to reduce gun violence. One such program in Charlotte did encourage a number of citizens to lock up their guns to reduce theft, but it was otherwise unsuccessful in promoting firearm safety (Vogel 1968). The Seattle Police Department has placed inserts in public utility bills to encourage homeowners to store their guns safely. It is not known if this program had any effect.

Media campaigns to promote safe and responsible behavior are appealing. Unfortunately, few have been found to be effective. Robertson and colleagues measured the impact of a saturation advertising campaign to promote the use of safety belts in a city served by two cable systems: one system aired more than 1000 high quality promotional spots; the other aired none. Subsequent observation revealed no difference in the rate of safety belt use among subscribers of either system (Robertson 1981).

Rivara has suggested that the impact of safety campaigns is blunted by attenuation of effect (National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control 1989). No matter how powerful and repetitive a safety message may be, some people will never encounter it. Among those who see or hear the message, some will reject it. Among those who accept the message as true, some will not be sufficiently motivated to change their behavior. Among those who change their behavior, some will lapse back into old habits over time and others will fail to follow the message on a consistent basis.

There are several reasons why media campaigns to promote violence prevention are unlikely to be effective. First, the group most likely to be injured or killed (young males) is also the group most resistant to behavioral change (National Committee for Injury Prevention and Control 1989). Second, anti-violence messages must compete with a huge number of explicit and subliminal messages that glorify aggression, violence and the use of weapons. Third, youth receive mixed signals from authority figures. Although most states take a hard line on gun-carrying by youth, many have made it easier for adults to carry a handgun for protection. Juveniles may reason that if an adult needs to carry a gun for protection, they do, too (Ash 1996).

The most significant barrier to effectiveness may well be the "code of the streets." Anderson’s ethnographic research suggests that in inner-city neighborhoods many young people consider maintenance of "respect" through aggressive behavior or violence as more important than life itself (Anderson 1994). However, attitudes like these are not limited to the inner city. Kellermann and colleagues interviewed white and African-American youth in metropolitan Atlanta, and found that none identified "just walk away" as an acceptable option for responding to a challenge or threat. Most dismissed anti-violence ads and celebrity testimonials as naive or self-serving; several noted that they were exposed to so much media that no message is perceived as relevant or genuine (Kellermann and Fuqua-Whitley 1995).