Tenn. DUI campaign causes controversy amid allegations of sexism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN/WATE) – The Governor’s Highway Safety Office says a controversial advertising campaign targeting drinking and driving has now been suspended and Knoxville-based advertising agency The Tombras Group is refunding the cost of the campaign.

According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Office:

The Tombras Group is going to refund the GHSO for the amount of this particular campaign and we do not have that figured totaled yet. Since the current contract is expiring soon, the GHSO will soon be initiating a new RFQ to secure an advertising firm for future safety campaigns. The campaign in question is just ONE of several developed by the Tombras Group, and it was only to be used during the “100 Days of Summer Heat”, which is Memorial Day through Labor Day. This issue has been thoroughly discussed with the Tombras Group, and any future campaigns will be thoroughly scrutinized.

The campaign was designed to reach young men, but many say it’s too edgy and insults women.

dui campaign
The campaign, put out by the Governor’s Highway Safety Office, is designed to reach young men, but many say it’s too edgy and insults women.

Bars and restaurants around the state were flooded with coasters and table flags recently that say, “Buy a drink for a marginally good looking girl only to find out she’s chatty, clingy, and your boss’s daughter. If this sounds like something you would do, your judgment is impaired and so is your driving.”

The GHSO says the cost for production and distribution of the materials was just over $77,000, paid for by federal funding. The cost for removal will be paid for by The Tombras Group.

One restaurant customer told News 2 he doesn’t think the message is quite appropriate.

“I just think it’s bizarre, the language they are using on it,” said Cory Wurst.

While the message would seem to be well intended, trying to reduce drinking and driving, many think the way it targets young men and speaks of women is sexist.

“It came across that way to me. It really did,” said Frank Hall, General Manager of Gold Rush on Elliston Place in Nashville.

Frank Hall, General Manager of Gold Rush
Frank Hall, General Manager of Gold Rush

He said looking at the coaster makes him wonder what his customers are going to think.

What is a young lady coming in going to think about that?” Hall asked, adding, “They never saw them. I wouldn’t let them out.”

He told News 2 the coasters bothered him and that’s all it took to make the decision to keep them away.

Graffiti advertising is also being used as part of the campaign, imagery like a rudimentary drawing of a cat being used as a mop to clean up vomit.

Tuesday afternoon, the state released the following statement regarding their campaign:

The Governor’s Highway Safety Office would like to apologize for any offense caused by the 100 Days of Summer Heat Booze It and Lose It Campaign. Because one of the goals of many Booze It and Lose It campaigns is to reach our high risk driving population, the marketing is often edgy and designed to grab the attention of the young male demographic. It was never the intent of the GHSO to be insensitive or insulting to women.

The GHSO receives federal funding to change driver behavior through education and enforcement. No state dollars are used for the marketing of campaigns such as Booze It and Lose It or Click It or Ticket.

The table tents, posters, and coasters in question will no longer be distributed and are being removed from bars across the state. The cost for the production and distribution of these materials was $77,096. The cost for the removal of these materials will be paid for by The Tombras Group, the Knoxville media/marketing firm that is under contract with the Governor’s Highway Safety Office. The Tombras Group has also removed the micro-website that was designed to be a companion to the bar materials.

The goal of the Governor’s Highway Safety Office continues to be reducing crashes and saving lives in the state of Tennessee. Impaired driving continues to be the preeminent danger facing motorists across the nation.

Kendell Poole, Director
Governor’s Highway Safety Office

News 2 reached out to MADD, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, to hear what they had to say. They said, in full:

MADD is focused on eliminating drunk driving by the use of all offender ignition interlock laws and high visibility law enforcement efforts. We know these things work and encourage Tennessee to focus its resources on proven DUI countermeasures.

Kate Ritchie, MADD TN State Director

State Rep. John Ray Clemmons also weighed in on the ad campaign, saying:

I am calling on Governor Haslam to disavow this offensive and ill-conceived marketing campaign concocted by the Governor’s Highway Safety Office. It is not only offensive, but it is also inexcusable and a waste of taxpayer dollars. Frankly, I am furious.

Rick Laney, president of Rick Laney Marketing, Advertising and PR, has been in the industry 25 years and has worked on hundreds of advertising campaigns.

He sees where Knoxville marketing agency, The Tombras Group thought the ads would be effective as part of the state’s DUI campaign.

“I think they did the right thing from a marketing stand point and what I mean by that is they were talking to the people they were trying to reach which was a young male audience,” said Laney.

Laney says the mistake was probably made by the agency not considering the source of funding. The campaign was paid for with federal funds.

“There’s a big difference when you’re working for a public entity and you have a campaign funded by tax money you do have to be aware of the people you are going to offend,” said Laney.

The governor’s office released this statement about the controversial advertising: “The governor’s office had not seen the campaign. The governor didn’t like it and is pleased that it has been suspended.”

Laney says removing the controversial ads was the right thing to due not because of the message but because of the source of funding.

“If it weren’t for the fact it was paid for by tax money those ads could have been effective advertisements to reach that demographic,” said Laney.

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