The compass of acceptance: the unconscious reaction to traffic campaigns

The compass of acceptance: the unconscious reaction to traffic campaigns

9 Min.
By Arianna Tedeschi
April 5, 2024

Road safety is a particularly significant topic in today's society. With unprecedented ease of travel and transportation, the risks have also escalated. It is, therefore, crucial to raise awareness in society to prevent and mitigate such situations effectively.

Together, Bitbrain and the Fundación Mapfre conducted a study on the effectiveness of traffic campaigns. The questions were clear:  

“Are campaigns that show crude scenes more effective? Or are more gentle, soft, and lighthearted' campaigns better?” 

Results were the opposite of the common belief. We tend to think that by showing people the brutal truth and the consequences of a car accident we will be able to get to their core beliefs and raise their awareness to be more careful on the road. Nevertheless, the study has scientifically demonstrated that that is not the case. Let’s go a little bit deeper into the topic, how did we address the issue? 
The aim was to determine the extent to which the non-conscious association between dangerous situations and wrongness changed before and after watching the campaigns.

“Which group experiences a greater change: the one exposed solely to tough campaigns or the one exposed solely to friendly or informative campaigns?” 


The methodological approach to carry out the research involved the use of three neurotechnologies (EEG, GSR, Eye Tracking) for the analysis of the unconscious response plus a pre and post implicit response test. Specifically:

  • Dry EEG Diadem (Bitbrain hardware): portable EEG headset made of 12 dry EEG electrodes over specific brain areas optimized to estimate emotional and cognitive states.
  • GSR Ring (Bitbrain hardware): mobile bio signal device for the monitoring of electrodermal (EDA / GSR) and cardiovascular activity (BVP).   
  • Eye Tracking  Screen-based Pro Nano (Tobii hardware): screen-based eye tracking system that capture and analyze gaze data.  
  • Implicit response test (Bitbrain software): enables the assessment of the strength of unconscious associations with a topic based on response time; the quicker the response, the stronger the association.  

IAT neurotechnology

Through the use of our proprietary software solution SennsLab (recording and synchronization of data), SennsMetrics (analysis of data) and our internally developed technologies we were able to carry out an in-depth analysis based on cognitive and emotional metrics. More precisely:  

  • Activation: Basal level of physiological activation produced by a stimulus or situation. May be due to a positive or negative emotional response.  
  • Impact: Number and intensity of point changes in the emotional state produced by a stimulus, external event, or in the performance of a task. In other words, it identifies something that is striking or produces excitement or stress. 
  • Valence: Degree of attraction experienced in response to stimuli or a situation, from a positive/pleasant reaction to a negative/unpleasant reaction.  
  • Memorization: Intensity of the cognitive processes related to the formation of future memories during the presentation of stimuli or during an experience. It captures the degree of storage, encoding, and retention in memory. 
  • Workload: It measures the neurological focus, or concentration of a participant when presented with stimuli or during experiences. In other words, it represents the use of cognitive resources to carry out a task or visualize a stimulus. 


The methodology and experimental design used to carry out the investigation consisted of four main steps that allowed us to compare and draw conclusions between the two groups.  
Here is a visual representation of the different phases of the experiment: 

Visual scheme of the main components of the study 

Figure 1. Visual scheme of the main components of the study 

 An Implicit Response Test was given to the participants before and after the visualization of videos in order to study the effects that the two groups of spots had on the association with each category. The objective of the test is, based on two concepts to compare, to determine which of the two is perceived more positively (or another attribute) and to what level of difference. For more detailed information about the test please have a look at the following article: “What is an Implicit Association Test (IAT)?” 
Through the division of the exhibition into two groups we were able to analyze the differences between those who saw "harsh" videos and those who saw "soft" videos.  

The sample size was formed of N=80 people, with 2 balanced experimental groups of N=40 people to achieve reliable findings that ensure the replicability of results. The sample profile consisted of drivers between 18 and 65 years old who had not experienced a significant accident personally or within their family. 
24 traffic campaigns were analyzed, including 12 tough ones, such as 'Muerto' (‘Dead’); and 12 of a friendly nature, such as ‘El síndrome del carril izquierdo' (‘The left lane syndrome’).  

Differences in results between group 1 and group 2 enabled us to understand the different effects of these two groups of campaigns. 


Non-conscious results 

After watching the videos, the Dangerous and Wrong association of images and words shown in the Implicit Response Test increases by more than 5% in both categories. However, the increase is greater after watching friendly campaigns than after watching severe campaigns (0.8% more). 

Graphical comparison illustrating pre and post test results

Figure 2. Graphical comparison illustrating pre and post test results from hard and soft campaigns.

The analysis went deeper into the peaks of emotional differences while visualizing the scenes. Results showed that both severe and kind campaigns have relevance, memorization, impact and attention much higher than the normal benchmark (400+ spots with 15,000+ participants internally analyzed in Bitbrain). That is to say, road safety campaigns are generally much more effective than advertising spots, regardless of the topic they deal with. 


Figure 3. Comparative graphic of the results of hard and soft campaigns in the different metrics evaluated. 

The Fear Appeal Theory 

All in all, gentle campaigns, turned out to be slightly better than hard campaigns, but why? 
Academically speaking we could link this phenomenon to the “fear appeal theory” (Ruiter et al., 2014). Before carrying out our study we conducted bibliographic research on the topic in order to understand if any possible behavioral bias or other phenomenon may arise throughout the study and to shape the design of our experimental protocol correctly.

The “fear appeal theory” was a crucial finding. It represents the use of threats/scary concepts or images to motivate an individual toward a specific action. Yet, following this principle, the risk is that it might create a reaction of complete rejection: the presented image is so traumatic that it is unconsciously blocked by the brain that raises a barrier and ignores it or, if perceived, it cannot be accepted on a personal level (Williams & Kaylene, 2012). Meaning that if the accident were to happen it wouldn’t be because of the viewer’s fault.  
Evidence was found both at a declarative level and at a neuroscientific level.  

Conscious results

From a declarative (conscious) perspective, aggressive campaigns elicit more discomfort and have a stronger impact compared to friendly or informative campaigns (56.1% vs 24.4%). Additionally, in the context of aggressive campaigns, 7.30% acknowledge being more attentive. Respondents generally exhibit a more positive emotional response to friendly campaigns compared to aggressive ones (75.6% report feeling good or neutral vs 36.60%). A greater proportion of participants indicate that friendly or informative campaigns have the potential to alter their mindset (39% for friendly campaigns vs 29% for aggressive ones). To visualize this information graphically, see figure 4. 

Main results of the declarative segment for hard and soft campaigns.

Figure 4. Main results of the declarative segment for hard and soft campaigns.

Analyzing the verbatims, it is clear that harsh advertisements show an insensitivity to errors, and this causes, unconsciously, the participants to reject the option that they could be guilty of a similar situation: “I am already very cautious”, “I already consider myself quite cautious behind the wheel”, “It is very unlikely to happen to me, I already very careful”.

On the other hand, friendly or informative campaigns allow us to reach the viewer in a way where they are not made to feel so responsible, taking it as a constructive recommendation: “I am more aware that it can happen to me like to anyone else”, “I'm going to keep a few more things in mind”.

A link with the past

Going back in time, could we think of any other example that supports this kind of result? 
Historically we can observe this phenomenon in one of the most famous Public Service Announcement (PSA) campaigns of the last decade "Dumb ways to die”. Published in 2012 for Metro Trains (Australia) by the agency McCann (Melbourne) this project created commitment in the audience and was able to reduce by a 21% the incidents in train stations in Australia. The success of this movement reinforces the importance of an effective narrative that does not focus on an advertising model (generate revenue through paid advertisements) but on a content model (provide valuable and engaging content to the audience).  

Not only the message was powerful, but it was also presented in such a way that it was considered more entertaining and lighthearted. The content featured a blend of humor, a memorable song, and vibrant animations. Despite its light-hearted tone, the campaign effectively communicated a serious safety message by vividly depicting the repercussions of irresponsible actions. Moreover, the agency employed a multi-platform strategy to reach diverse demographics, ensuring widespread visibility and interaction. Interactive components such as games and quizzes further encouraged audience engagement and participation. 

For the complete version of the video please follow this link

Insights gained from the analysis  

All in all, we can conclude that in this type of campaigns (kind and humorous), rhythm and content is essential, just like in “Dumb ways to die”. Compared to rough campaigns, in the soft ones, the peaks of impact were less pronounced, and therefore it may be easier to lose the viewer. Consequently, it is important to give rhythm to the campaign, including surprises or creative ways of displaying the information. No matter how much a story has a beautiful and very emotional ending, if it does not have a rhythm at the beginning, the viewer will reach that emotional ending completely detached.  
Regarding the tragic scenes we were able to prove that people did look directly at them, but this did not create a huge peak in the emotional reaction. On the other hand, friendly and positive reinforcement and suggestions on the topic did have a better outcome on unconscious association.  

Further in the analysis, we could also point out some additional information that is worth underlying as key factors that can improve the outcome of the results in general:  

Gráficas Blog Mapfre 04


In conclusion, considering the results, if both types of campaigns yield a comparable effect in altering perception, it appears unnecessary to amplify conscious reactions through the use of highly distressing images, given that the subconscious aspect of friendly or informative campaigns can be equally, if not more, effective. Although it might seem easier to evoke impact and elicit a more favorable response with aggressive campaigns, we have actually found examples of friendly and informative campaigns that are generating better impact and activation than many tough campaigns. In the end, the story is the key.

For more information, please visit the following links:

Representative video of the process carried out with study participants.

Bitbrain solutions

Bitbrain specializes in developing innovative devices with excellent usability for multimodal monitoring, encompassing semi-dry EEG, dry-EEG, and textile-EEG systems, as well as biosignals (ExG, GSR, RESP, TEMP, IMUs, etc.), and eye-tracking solutions (screen-based and mobile platforms).

The software tools facilitate the design of experiments, effortless data gathering with over 35 synchronized sensor types, and extensive data analysis covering a broad spectrum of emotional and cognitive biometrics.

Bitbrain's platforms offer interconnectivity with other systems through LSL, ePrime, Matlab, or Python, providing flexibility and compatibility for diverse research and application needs.

Our systems are used by scientists in high-impact and peer-reviewed publications in a wide range of research applications, including neuroscience, psychology, education, human factors, market research and neuromarketing, and brain-computer interfacing.

Please feel free to contact us here to get more information about our training modules “Infoproducts”. A complete overview of the principles of Neuromarketing. 

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