Center for Problem-Oriented Policing

Police Publicity Campaigns and Target Audiences

Police publicity campaigns target two main audiences: potential victims and offenders. Law enforcement agencies should decide which audience to target based on the nature of the problem. For example, if a police department notices that there are numerous preventable property crimes in an area, perhaps a short campaign to remind residents about the importance of securing their belongings could be beneficial. On the other hand, if local youths routinely vandalize cars in a parking lot, a campaign threatening police apprehension would be more effective. However, nothing prevents a dual approach whereby two campaigns run simultaneously, one to reduce the number of potential victims, and the other to deter offenders.1The figure below illustrates this concept.

figure 3

When trying to determine the target audience, one should also consider how accessible each audience is. For example, a victim-oriented campaign designed to reduce car break-ins by mailing fliers to local residences is not appropriate if most of the victims are commuters from out of town. Likewise, putting up posters aimed at car thieves in retirement facilities is unlikely to reach the intended audience. Therefore, “audience accessibility” should guide the campaign’s direction.

Publicity directed at VICTIMS can advertise:

  • self-protection techniques
  • new ways to report crime
  • locations of police facilities or resources
  • dangerous areas
  • offenders living in the area (e.g., sex offenders)
  • neighborhood crime problems.

Publicity directed at OFFENDERS can advertise:

  • police techniques or future police crackdowns
  • penalties or the risk of apprehension for certain crimes
  • results of past crackdowns or police operations
  • knowledge of an illicit market or drug trade
  • legislative changes.

Victim-Oriented Campaigns

Efforts to reach victims can take one of two forms. Police can try to provide general information to residents concerning crime and its prevention, or they can advertise a specific community program they are undertaking. The goals of general campaigns are to raise awareness in hopes that some members of the public will avoid victimization. The second type of victim campaign focuses on a particular crime and offers victims concrete steps to avoid victimization or reduce their fear of crime.2These campaigns often involve cooperation between the police department and the community in conducting home-security surveys, obtaining steering-wheel locks, or providing classes on various security-enhancing measures. Fliers and newsletters demonstrating techniques to make cars and houses “burglar-proof ” are common in these “target-hardening” campaigns.

General publicity campaigns aimed at victims have had limited effectiveness.3A four-month national press and poster campaign tried to educate people about the importance of locking their parked cars, but it failed to change people’s behavior.4Another campaign used posters and television spots to remind people to lock their car doors, but it also proved ineffective.5These studies demonstrate that people often pay little attention to crime prevention messages. A common reason given is that potential victims do not feel that it concerns them.6For instance, domestic violence awareness campaigns have to compete with the possibility that women do not want to see themselves as victims.7

Some other explanations include community members’ feeling bored by the message, not seeing the message, ignoring the message, or adopting the “it won’t happen to me” mentality. Even with extensive campaign coverage, general publicity attempts show meager results. A five-week police campaign showed that “despite an unusually high level of coverage, [the campaign] failed to influence the number of car thefts known to the police or the proportion of drivers locking their cars.”8In Canada, a mass media campaign to promote crime prevention relied on radio, television, newspapers, and billboard advertisements. This general campaign attempted to target three different property crimes: vandalism, residential burglary, and theft from automobiles. Although the campaign reached a large segment of the population, only a small number perceived the crime prevention themes as relevant or worthwhile.9

However, victim campaigns that focus on specific crimes and are carried out in small geographic regions seem to be more effective.10They seem to have more success because people feel the messages are more relevant to their immediate situation than are generic warnings about crime. A good example of this type of campaign was carried out by the North Brunswick Police Department in New Jersey. In 1998, the department decided to address auto thefts through a multimedia publicity campaign. The campaign included television public service announcements (PSAs), newsletters from the mayor’s office, crime prevention brochures, community bulletin boards, and local billboards, among other measures. The effort also included the donation of free Clubs® from local businesses. By attending local community functions, the police could reach many residents, effectively disseminating specific crime prevention information. One out of three residents reported some contact with the campaign, and of those, nearly all adopted the proposed crime prevention measures, significantly reducing auto crimes.11

Sometimes, victim publicity campaigns reduce crime because they alert offenders that the police are doing something new or are paying more attention to the problem.12While warning offenders is not an intended part of the campaign, the message still reaches them. A property-marking project in the United Kingdom was successful because the publicity surrounding the police intervention inadvertently informed potential burglars that measures were under way to address the problem.13Similarly, a police campaign to reduce car theft by inviting residents to etch a vehicle identification number (VIN) on their cars was an unexpected success because it deterred potential offenders by alerting them to the prevention measure.14

Summary of Victim-Oriented Campaigns

  • Victim-oriented campaigns work best when carried out in small geographic areas.
  • Victim campaigns should focus on specific crime types.
  • General victim campaigns are rarely successful in changing prevention behaviors.
  • Many victim campaigns fail to reach the intended audiences with the message.
  • Timeliness and relevance are key to campaign success.
  • The campaign may have an indirect positive effect of warning offenders.

Offender-Oriented Campaigns

Crime prevention strategies rely on the notion that offenders are rational individuals who seek to maximize their rewards while minimizing their potential costs.15With that premise, giving offenders information about the risks of crime becomes an important component of crime reduction efforts. Police agencies can use publicity to advertise the risks offenders are taking, either by showing the increased level of victim protection (thereby reducing the potential benefits), or by highlighting the legal consequences of crime (increasing the costs). Costs to the offenders can range from bodily harm, to legal sanctions, to societal impacts. Boston’s efforts to reduce gun crimes included a publicity component that proved to be quite effective because the campaign’s message “delivered a direct and explicit message to violent gangs and groups that violent behavior will no longer be tolerated, and that the group will use any legal means possible to stop the violence.”16

Some examples of campaigns focused on legal consequences or making moral appeals include “DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE,” “SHOPLIFTING IS A CRIME,” and “SPEEDING KILLS.” However, evaluations have found that this type of publicity campaign rarely has an impact.17Perhaps, as with victim campaigns, offenders do not take the message seriously, or they do not feel it applies to them and dismiss it as irrelevant. Many offender campaigns are also ineffective because they deliver information at times when people are not committing crimes.18In short, the campaign organizers should ask themselves: “How do we make it relevant to the offenders’ immediate situation?”

Publicity campaigns that threaten an increased risk of arrest can be more effective in reducing offending.19Campaigns that threaten only eventual punishment lack the element that plays an important role in the offender’s mental equation: the probability of getting caught.20When a police department engages in crime interdiction efforts, the risk of arrest should be the primary advertised message—not the effect of an arrest, but the probability of an arrest. In reality, this is hard to quantify, but the purpose of the publicity is simply to alter offenders’ perceptions, leaving them to wonder when and where they will be caught.

Offender campaigns are successful not when they threaten later punishment, but when they threaten detection and arrest. The Operation Identification and VIN initiatives discussed earlier were successful because the publicity warned offenders about increased police attention. In England, signs on buses that warned youths that they were being watched via CCTV, and that infractions would be reported to the police, significantly reduced bus vandalism.21

Campaigns designed to reduce speeding also support the use of threatening apprehension. Speed limit signs and posters demanding a slower pace have had little success in deterring speeders. However, speed cameras and publicity about the high likelihood of getting caught have proved to reduce the speeds of even the most dedicated of offenders.22Placing posters warning that officers are around the corner to surprise speeders is a good example of effective offender publicity.23

Finally, offender campaigns are more efficient when they target specific crime types and focus on a clearly defined geographic area.24For offenders to take the message seriously, they need to feel as though the campaign targets them directly. This need to be specific requires police agencies to know whom they are targeting, at what times, and in what areas. For example, a police initiative to reduce car vandalism after school hours can include posting signs around town stating that “VANDALISM IS A MISDEMEANOR,” but a more focused approach might include posters in the problem area with messages such as “SMILE, UNDERCOVER OFFICERS ARE WATCHING YOU,” or “OUR OFFICERS HAVE ALREADY ARRESTED 12 STUDENTS FOR VANDALISM—WILL YOU BE NEXT?”. By focusing on distinct areas instead of trying to cover an entire city, police officers can concentrate their publicity resources on one setting, avoiding the risk of spreading themselves too thin. This targeted approach also allows personalization of the message, making it more believable and pertinent to the local audience.

Summary of Offender-Oriented Campaigns

  • Advertise increased risks and reduced rewards.
  • Avoid moral appeals; instead, focus on the likelihood of immediate detection and arrest.
  • The message should be publicized when and where offenders can see it.
  • Offender-oriented campaigns work best when carried out in small geographic areas.
  • Offender campaigns should focus on specific crime types.
  • Timeliness and relevance are key to campaign success.