NO ONE IS SAFE? What's the Message of this Billboard?

Ads brainwashing away our sense of well-being




These are the words, written large and unavoidable, in two different movie ads right now. 

Both use disturbing imagery to support their copy.  Both are on huge billboards along the daily school drive.  Universal’s marketers made sure they bought up all the outdoor space near the office so the big bosses would see it on their drives to work.  Which means that the campaign for Safe House, with its tag of “NO ONE IS SAFE” is everywhere in our neighborhood, and we pass that powerful, negative message at least 20 times a day.

I hesitate to mention any more billboards.  In fact, given reaction to my last piece, most would counsel me to stay far way from commenting upon outdoor advertising of any kind for quite awhile.  But weeks of passing this message on boards, bus sides and benches have left me with at least three hundred inescapable negative impressions at this point.  So is it safe to say there’s a problem here? 

There’s more than one problem, actually. 

The closely cropped black and white image of an intense-looking African American man (actor Denzel Washington, who is not ID’d in many versions of the ad) with NO ONE IS SAFE emblazoned across his face seems to play quite directly to racial bias. And a fairly strong case could be made that it’s a curious composition to be using in an election year with an African American male incumbent.

Yet putting racism and Obama-bashing aside (heavy-lifting I know), what is really going on here, in the name of selling tickets, is fear mongering.  The purposeful cultivation of fear is so pervasive in our culture now; we mostly just accept that it must be true, that we live in generally awful, horribly violent and scary times.  We are bombarded with those negative themes everywhere, not just in the relentlessly ugly mine fields of “news” but in our entertainment marketing too. 

But the facts don’t support it.  Harvard Professor, respected researcher and best-selling author Steven Pinker writes persuasively in his latest book “The Better Angels of our Nature”, that our world is far less violent now than it has ever been.  And our own LAPD has the impressive statistics to prove it.

Yet what we believe often has more power than statistics, and when we are literally surrounded by the words NO ONE IS SAFE that becomes our reality. 

The fact is fear mongering is a time-honored sales tactic. Everyone one from parents to religion to politics to Universal has used it to great effect.  But it is not something to shrug off.  Growing a thicker skin just disconnects us further.

The cumulative effect of all that fraudulent fear matters.  It’s more than just a movie ad that comes and goes.  Or yet another salacious lead story on the local “news."  If we allow ourselves to be saturated by this manufactured anxiety, the quality of our lives is diminished.  Another researcher’s findings always stayed with me.  He said our sense of well being can be measured by how many positive, casual interactions we had daily in our neighborhood. I can’t help but believe the converse is true as well, and after running the NO ONE IS SAFE gauntlet yet again today, I have to say I feel it.

Don’t get me wrong.  The Safe House ad is well made, provocative and compelling. And I love a good action-thriller.  The movie bows today and given the size of the campaign, will most likely have a decent opening weekend.  With my ticket purchase part of the final tally. 

Still, I can’t help wishing my awareness of the picture did not come at quite such a high cost to our community’s peace of mind.

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Miki Henderson February 11, 2012 at 09:11 PM
You know, I thought this when I was passing it, but I never saw anyone put it down as well as you have. Yeah, racist, I think. Denzel should have thought this out. He probably doesn't think of himself as a black man, more of just an Oscar winner, and not a communtiy he repsents.
Noe Gold February 12, 2012 at 07:22 AM
Kelly, I have to disagree with you on the race card you are playing. Your comments about fear being a powerful motivator are spot on, but Denzel would be the last to claim the role of representative of his race any more than Vincent Price, Bela Lugosi or any actor who has starred in a horror movie would represent the white race, or the Hungarian nationals or any ethnicity they hail from. What if it were a movie about extraterrestrials with the same tag line, and the image was of an alien? Would you say the billboard was promoting fear of aliens, the unknown, the Other? Course not. In a capitalist society, your freedom of speech is sometimes paid for (or payment for) marketers' use of the landscape to sell stuff. In the Soviet-era communist society that same space was used to convey the government's message. You could legislate it away, but you'd be better off "growing a thick skin."By the way, I saw the movie and it was a crackling good yarn of an action movie, and Denzel's performance gave it some quiet dignity. I went because of the great tv spots that promoted the movie two months ago, not because of the billboards. So I am happy you are not campaigning for a boycott of it. Justmsayin'...
Kelly Cole February 14, 2012 at 09:41 PM
Thanks for your note, Noe. I mention (barely) the racial bias issue because I think it has validity, as does the whiff of Obama-bashing. But neither are my point. This is: When I hear suburban, middle class moms say they wish they could send their 10 years olds outside to play unsupervised, or let them walk two blocks to school, but they can't "because we live in such dangerous times," I tell them we actually live in the safest time in history. And they look at me like I am crazy. Because we are all so inundated with the "NO ONE IS SAFE" fear-mongering that we have completely internalized it. The movie is just the latest to use the tactic, and I used it back as a jumping off point. And I don't the think the answer is to grow a thicker skin, I think that is part of our problem. We think we are shrugging it, off but we are just internalizing it, and letting that deep-rooted, barely conscious, fear-based world view control our quality of life.
Noe Gold February 14, 2012 at 10:14 PM
Your point is a good one but I believe you obfuscate it by bringing in the Obama-bashing and racial bias, which is simply not there. That is what I am reacting to – Denzel Washington is an actor who is black no more than Al Pacino is an actor who is Italian. To attribute some agenda because of this casting to white haters and Obama baters is just myopic. And by the way, the ad campaign has nothing to do with the safety of our streets. It's about a spy thriller named "Safe House," a simple play on words, so any other message is in the eye of the beholder.


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