Annapolis ad man one of the brains behind the Crash Test Dummies

Seat belt safety campaign launched in mid-1980s to be showcased by Smithsonian

  • Joel Machak, executive creative director of Crosby Marketing in Annapolis, who helped conceptualize the Crash Test Dummies ad campaign in the 1980s.
Joel Machak, executive creative director of Crosby Marketing… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
July 30, 2010|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

Annapolis marketing executive Joel Machak relished the challenge thrown his way 25 years ago when he worked for a Chicago ad agency: Create a public service campaign to promote the use of seat belts.

It was a daunting task. In 1985, fewer than one in five Americans wore seat belts, and many believed it would be safer in an accident to be thrown from a car. All of the TV spots on seat belt use at the time were somber, and some of them were terrifying. Moreover, Machak and a colleague thought, none of them worked.

Enter Vince and Larry, the walking, talking and funny Crash Test Dummies. Machak and a fellow associate creative director at the Leo Burnett advertising agency came up with a campaign based on the two characters.

Vince, the older, cynical dummy, hated his job test-crashing cars, thinking no one was listening to the message to buckle up. Larry, younger and overly enthusiastic, would try to persuade Vince to come back for just one more test because, as he said, "It could save a life."

"We were showing the horrors of a car accident in a way you can actually look at," Machak said.

By the time the campaign's TV and print run ended in 1998, seat belt use had jumped to 87 percent and Vince and Larry had become a pop culture phenomenon. Now they're being celebrated by the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which took possession last month of the campaign's costumes, props, drawings, set sketches, photographs and industry awards.

Machak, now an executive creative director for Crosby Marketing Communications in Annapolis, spoke with The Baltimore Sun this past week about the origins and outcomes of the Crash Test Dummies campaign.

Question: How did Crash Test Dummies end up in the Smithsonian?

Answer: A couple of years ago, Roger White, a curator at the Smithsonian, started collecting material on the history of automotive safety. It took very long for manufacturers to put safety devices in cars.

For the first seat belts, it took 30 years [after they were invented] before they were first put in cars, and when they were put in cars, people didn't like them, [thinking] if a car had a seat belt in it, there was something wrong with the car.

What [White] noticed, he looked at attitudes, and seat belts were put in cars in the early 1960s and were mandated in cars a few years later, but even 20 years later, by the mid-1980s, only 14 percent of Americans were wearing seat belts.

There was suddenly a sea change in attitudes, and people started becoming aware that safety belts were good. There was a major jump in compliance, followed by attitude shifts, and today you can sell a car with safety. He concluded the Crash Test Dummies campaign had a historic influence on the attitudes and behaviors.

Q: What does it mean in the advertising world and to you personally to have a campaign showcased by the Smithsonian?

A: To have something in the Smithsonian was something I never dreamed could happen. It's kind of an event that's so special, it's even hard to aspire to. It had won every award that we ever dreamed of, but this came as a surprise. To have something you've done deemed of historic significance by the Smithsonian, that is as good as it gets. This is honoring something that happened over a long period of time and can be looked at through the perspective of time.

Q: Tell me about the origin and creation of the campaign. What were you asked to do, and how did you come up with the idea?

A: I was working at Leo Burnett in Chicago, and the U.S. Department of Transportation came to the agency through the Advertising Council, and they were looking for something to promote safety belt usage.

I was an art director and Jim Ferguson was a writer, and working together we came up with this idea, the idea of doing something with crash dummies. The real turn was to make it funny. A person will engage humor, and if it is in fact funny, they will accept it and the message without question.

Crash test dummies had been around and used in auto safety since the '50s. If we wanted to show what happens in a car accident, we can't do it with a real person. The idea of making [the dummies] alive and making them humorous was where the breakthrough occurred. We started having fun with it.

Q: Describe a couple of the original TV spots.

A: It was called Pre-Crash. The car is being pulled backward as if it's going to be catapulted into the wall. Vince is explaining why he doesn't want to do it anymore. Vince pulls a seat belt out, and Larry stops him before he buckles it, saying, "Vince, we're dummies. We don't wear safety belts." And Vince says, "Aww, you know how to hurt a guy." And the car takes off and slams into a wall.

In "Post Crash," they were lying on the hood of a car, with broken glass and car parts and one guy's arm ripped off and another with a hole in his head. One says, "I'm history, the end of the road." [and the other says,] "No, you can't quit. Nobody takes out a utility pole like you do."

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