Pondering with Doug – March 22, 2019

In the 1980’s, Jay Winsten, a public health professor at Harvard got interested in the idea of a “designated driver.” He’d picked up the concept in Scandinavia where it was the norm. At the time, the concept did not exist in the US. None of us knew what a designated driver was.

Winsten and his team at Harvard made it a goal to create a social norm in the United States: If you are going out drinking, you would pick a designated driver who would commit not to drink for the evening. How do you create a social norm out of thin air? Winsten’s inspiration was that you could make the behavior contagious by repeatedly exposing people to it, in many different contexts, even if those contexts were fictional.

Winsten and his team collaborated with produces, writers, and actors from more than 160 prime time TV programs, sprinkling designated-driver moments naturally into the plots. Segments featuring designated drivers appeared on Hunter, The Cosby Show, Mr. Belvedere, and Who’s the Boss? On one episode of the smash-hit L.A. Law, the heartthrob lawyer played by Harry Hamlin asked a bartender to call his designated driver. A designated-driver poster appeared in the bar on Cheers.

Winsten’s plea to the media was for “five seconds” of dialogue about a designated driver. He didn’t want a full episode or even a whole scene. He simply wanted the words mentioned repeatedly. Grant Tinker said about it, “Considering the simplicity of it all, it was very hard for us to feel our independence was being challenged.”

In 1991, three years after the campaign launched, nine out of ten people were familiar with the term designated driver. And they were behaving differently as a result. Thirty-seven percent of all Americans reported having acted as designated drivers, and 54% of frequent drinkers had been driven home by one. The behavioral change saved lives. Alcohol related traffic fatalities declined from 23,626 in 1988 to 17,858 in 1992.

I want you to ponder this under the rubric of “words create reality.” A new reality was created when two words were used repeatedly in media. This is a positive story about words creating reality. I’m sure you can think of the other side of this issue where words create another reality when they become a constant drum-beat in the media.

What words have created your reality?

Better yet, whose words have created your reality?

Those words are changing your life.


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