Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 16, 2011

Seeing A Really Big Box and Saying Something?

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Arnold Bogis on June 16, 2011

Upon entering the Harvard Square MBTA (i.e. subway) station in Cambridge, MA one sees this:



A box.  A really big box you can’t miss.  So now that you see something, who do you say something to?



Oh.  Well there you go.  A phone number.  Perfect. Though I have the suspicion that even if I called that box isn’t going anywhere.

It is part of an advertising campaign run by the MBTA (the local transportation authority) and funded by a $1 million homeland security grant to promote the “see something, say something” message.  Eye catching and direct, I find this and other variations in the campaign innovative and perhaps worth emulating elsewhere (as the slogan itself was, having originally been designed for use by New York City’s MTA).

However, it also raises several questions for me.  Is the campaign truly effective, and how could that be measured?  True, if explosives are discovered on a subway car by someone who followed the instructions it would be hailed as a victory.  But what if the terrorists are of the suicide varietal and don’t arouse suspicion before detonating their explosives?

How long will the message “stick” with the intended audience?  Once the campaign ends, will people forget or does it implant lasting behaviors?

Could the money be better spent on other homeland security-related areas?  Perhaps instead of this particular public information campaign the money could be used to bolster the area’s public health system?

I am not arguing against the campaign or questioning decision makers who felt this was a good way to spend federal funds.  In fact, I support it and feel that is important authorities interact with the public and include them in homeland security activities before something happens.

Yet I am left with these nagging questions and no answers that also seem to apply on a larger scale to pretty much the majority of homeland security issues.

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Comment by Jim Garrow

June 16, 2011 @ 2:34 pm

Ugh. I fear that homeland security PR is following the sad path that public health did. Easily ignored, not instructive, no engagement. I’m calling it now, the next thing you’ll see is messages/adverts aimed at eliciting a fear response.

(And don’t get me started on the absolute lack of connection between the ad and what we’re supposed to learn from it. Don’t keep an eye out for big boxes left in the walking lane? Wouldn’t this advert work just as well with a man in a chicken suit and a sandwich board yelling, “I’m not a terrorist, but that guy over there might be!” Just what are we supposed to learn from the box?)

The problem is that in our media-saturated world, people are too savvy. You think Kenneth Cole or McDonald’s would just plop a display in the middle of an MBTA station with a small placard saying, “Eat at McDonalds! Better than a sharp stick in the eye!”? Yet, our government communicators seem to think this type of ad is the bee’s knees.


Comment by Arnold Bogis

June 16, 2011 @ 4:36 pm


Thanks for the interesting, and informed, comments. I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with some of your points.

Agreement: depth. I often despair at the lack of information flowing from the government (at any level) to the public, even when it is readily available open source. However, I tend to think that there is also a bandwidth issue–people may be savvy but they are also busy/distracted/uninterested. What examples would you suggest of public outreach that both conveys a short, easily understood message while providing depth?

Disagreement: this box is not so easily ignored (compared to anything short of a person standing there physically interacting with you). In terms of advertisements, this one is eye catching and provides a simple message-plus: see something, say something + through this communication avenue. The original line originated with a pr professional, and it seems to have stuck. You mention McDonald’s and Kenneth Cole: the T is full of advertisements from such savvy companies. The pieces that get short blurbs in community newspapers and discussion at work are the ones like this box and Google adverts (where one had to solve an equation painted on the sloped ceiling in this station that led to a job website) that have been similarly displayed at this particular station.

This box might not be the coolest, but I struggle to think of anything in the private sector that draws similar attention in the train system. I’m open to depth, but also struggle to figure out the balance between memorable and informed.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 17, 2011 @ 5:47 am

A couple of inputs related to both See Something Say Something and, especially, to Suspicious Activity Reports.

The principle of engaging the public makes sense. Situational awareness with a readiness to take action is good for the individual and the group (See Amanda Ripley et al).

How to effectively apply the principle can be difficult. It is interesting (not authoritative, just interesting) that Ripley presses for more specific situational awareness in order to be ready to take immediate life-saving action. SSSS and SAR press for situational awareness in order to report to others to facilitate analysis. One approach focuses on each actor being better prepared to take independent action in the midst of a complex situation. The other approach focuses on feeding information into a centralized process that may eventually take purposeful action to prevent future harm (presumably by reducing complexity?). One is focused on unofficial action, the other is focused on official action.

In my experience centralized authority does have a role to play. It can be an especially important role in providing overall strategic direction. To effectively shape strategy decision-makers at the center need accurate information. But they also need to be thoughtful about what information. Generally, it is best to find seven or fewer key strategic drivers that are constantly measured and shared among strategists, operators, and tacticians. Too much information — and especially the wrong kind of information — creates noise that complicates rather than supports strategic decision-making.

Related, it seems to me, is this Washington Post series: http://projects.washingtonpost.com/top-secret-america/articles/monitoring-america/1/

Comment by Jim Garrow

June 20, 2011 @ 8:50 am

You’re following me around the web, Arnold. =)

The difference between the box in question and the ubiquitous McDonald’s and Kenneth Cole ads is just that. It’s a single box–easily noticed and noted–and then quickly into the background upon repeat views. The private sector ads provide multiple and near constant reinforcement. Additionally, there is a great feedback loop associated with private sector ads, actual purchases. If a campaign is being conducted and there is no associated bump in purchasing, the ads have failed and are taken down post haste. We don’t know if the box is working and never will.

If you pushed me to come up with a campaign that replicates private sector adwork and takes into account the latest theories on gamification, this is what I’d do:

Post brightly colored boxes with big different colored bows throughout the MBTA. The boxes themselves would be only one cubic foot. Say, red and white wrapping paper. The wrapping paper would say, repeatedly, “This is not a bomb.” On each side of the box, there would be a sticker, akin to the one on Chris’ box, that says, “See something, say something. Text your email address and this code (12345) to 40404 for a chance to win two tickets to a Red Sox game.” These boxes would be placed on benches, under benches, on ledges, on platforms, all over the place in all stations. Every week, City officials draw an email address as a winner and the campaign runs from March through September. If you’re feeling punchy, move the boxes around every month.

First, training. You’re training your audience to look for unusual sights in train stations. When they find the thing, they’re being trained to report it. And it’s interactive–there’s a reason to report it. The code (or color of the bow, or station name, etc.) ensures that people are actually looking for and reporting them in place.

Best case scenario? Someone’s looking for red/white box and sees a real bomb. Worst case scenario, the City has to buy six pairs of Red Sox tix.

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