Fear is one of the basic
emotions that springs automatically from a threat. It can be a real threat or a
symbolic threat. A lion charging at you is a real threat. The story about a lion
charging creates a symbolic threat. Our heart races in both cases. Evolution has
equipped us with a fear mechanism that is triggered in circumstances where the
risk of our survival is at stake. For a couple of hundred thousand years it
served the purpose of focusing our attention on the threat and escaping the
threat. The old proverb that says fear is your friend has a large element of
We don’t do a very good
job of processing modern reality where the threats are new and novel. Fear like
most emotions makes for an automatic, unthinking reaction. We think fast when
threatened. In the case of the charging lion that is a good thing. In modern
cities the chances of being attacked by a lion are small. But the chances of
being run over by a bus, car or truck are much higher. But we don’t fear them.
And that is a problem. I have been in Melbourne recently and have used the tram
Yarra Tram in Melbourne
I noticed signs on
platforms with a “Banksy-like” image of a Rhino on what looks like a skate
board. (Actually Banksy used rats but his motive wasn’t to stop people from
being run over by trams in Melbourne). There is a larger sign on the side of a
tram depot with has the rhino ballooned up in size and with the ‘word’ rhino
translated into a couple of dozen foreign languages.
The sign informs us that a
Tram is 30 times the size of a Rhino and you should be careful crossing Tram
tracks because one of those enormous rhino’s in the form of a tram might run you
Later I found the “Beware
the Rhino” advert made by the Yarra trams on YouTube. It certainly brings the
scary 30 Rhinos message to life:
There’s also “Beware the
page which has
some 3,000 likes.
I thought about the
message. BEWARE THE RHINO. FEAR THE TRAMS. The government in Melbourne has gone
into the fear creation business in order to provide safety to its citizens. I
suspected that years ago there must have been a number of accidents involving
people being run down by trams and some bright spark said that people were
oblivious to the dangers of the slowly lumbering trams. (A quick research
revealed that the Beware
the Rhino campaign started in May 2011. It was aimed
at tackling car to tram accidents.)
How can we get people’s
attention so they will focus on trams when they crossed a street in Melbourne?
That must have led to the inevitable series of committee meetings and public
hearings, and inevitably quite a lot of money paid to an advertising agency
However it happened, finally someone must have asked what are we afraid
of, what ignites the fires of fear and alerts us that we might be eaten? No
doubt the reply was that trams don’t eat people. That is the point. Rhinos as
far as I know don’t eat people either. The room must have been jumping as to
creatures that cause us to be fearful: rats, cobras, cockroaches, elephants,
lions, tigers, water buffalo. No doubt there were divisions and disagreements
over the appropriate animal to strike fear into the citizens of Melbourne as
well as tourists coming to the city for the first time.
Whatever political dealing
went on behind closed doors, we know that ultimately those in support of the
rhino prevailed as it is on every warning sign in the complex and extensive tram
Whether it has reduced
accidents as intended is not readily clear, but the campaign has certainly
achieved a notable recognition as far as advertisement campaigns go. It has won
“Postcard of the
Year” award for
The Melbourne tram rhino
got me thinking about the role of government in the fear business. Whether we
like it or not, governments have two major fear related policy tools. In the
case of the Melbourne tram rhino, the government manufactures fear. They take an
activity, a situation or an event which they believe may cause harm because
citizens have not evolved a fear reaction. In these circumstances, the
government’s policy is to artificially create a fear by association. Trams = 30
Rhinos. You wouldn’t want to ignore a rhino on the streets of Melbourne, would
you? Of course not, then you certainly would want to pay attention to a machine
30 times as powerful as a rhino that is on the streets daily, rushing up and
down like a charging wild animal.
How do you feel about
having the government manipulate your emotions? To manufacture your fear button
even though it is for your own protection, safety and welfare? The answer is
governments, pundits and private corporations do this all of the time. We become
immune to fear creation. We fear our health will suffer if we don’t take
vitamins though the scientific evidence is inclusively whether your daily dose
of vitamins actually does anything to protect our health and extend our
longevity. Pundits in the political election season pump up the fear of their
audience: elect Mr. Brown to office and you will lose your right to carry an
assault weapon. That means you can no longer protect yourself, your family and
friends against the Rhino like crazies who threat you on the street. At
There is a second aspect
to the fear business in politics: it is fear containment.
Unlike the first case
where there is no natural fear and one must be manufactured, in the second case
fear is irrational, and cascades through the population, and citizens demand
protection. The bird flu or other contagious disease quickly spread through an
Internet connected population. Governments react swiftly with vaccines,
quarantines, closing schools, and providing medical advice. In this mode, the
government is seeking to contain fear as generalized fear running out of control
is as dangerous as the problem that ignited the fear in the first place. Public
safety has always been a powerful political tool to gain votes and to cast an
opponent in a negative light. No politician wants to be labelled as soft on
The shoe bomber is a
classic case of fear containment. One man with homemade explosives in his shoes
resulted in fear contagion that governments contained by restricting civil
liberties of citizens. In the name of containing this fear of a shoe bomber,
plane passengers by the millions remove their shoes, their belts, empty their
pockets, walk through a metal detector or x-ray machine. By containing fear,
governments have found a way to increase their authority and power over
citizens. As far as I know, no one in government produces an annual report
listing the number of shoe bombs discovered in the shoes of millions of airline
passengers. One suspects they have found none. If they’d found even a single
shoe bomb, that fact would have been revealed to indicate people should remain
fearful and the containment policies were working. We are suckers for fear
containment because it seems so reasonable to buy into at the time, and so
difficult to unwind when most people agree that making and enforcing government
policy based on an irrational emotion isn’t in the best long term interests of
Once people look to the
government to contain irrational fears, they create a monster that is more
fearful that the original event that generated the initial fear that cascaded
through the population. How does anyone unwind a fear containment policy once it
has been funded, people hired, institutions created and inertia settle in? If
you have the answer to this question, please let me know. This is a modern
problem. We end up fearing the wrong things, events, and people and we pay a
high price for our irrationality.
Returning to the fear
creation side, we can understand the role of government is once again being
pitched as falling into the public safety category. Are the rhino signs in
Melbourne effective? Has anyone done a comparative study with other tram systems
that lack such signs or may be use a giant spider rather than a rhino to make
people fearful? Because citizens don’t think much about the sign, perhaps it
works on an unconscious level. We process the rhino in a part of our brain that
makes us instinctively more alert to the danger of stepping in front of
I’ve been told the
authorities in Melbourne are considering increasing the security on tram
platforms at night. Apparently the evidence indicates that a tram rider is at
greater risk of an assault during daylight hours than at night. But if we know
one thing as crime fiction writers, it is that night is noir, and night is dark,
our vision is compromised, there are rhinos in those shadows. So even though the
best allocation of resources to protect public safety and welfare would be to
increase security during the day, that is too rational. Our irrational mind
ignores the actual evidence, and falls back on the primitive instinct that the
night is always much more dangerous than the day. That’s why we invented fire.
And that is probably why the authorities in Melbourne will ramp up the security
at night even though they know the actual benefit will be less.
A great blog and an accurate observation, and very interesting perspective!
After working as a policy advisor for several years, I agree that fear (creation and containment) is the best way to get people's attention, gain votes, seek funding and be seen to be doing something about an issue. What the issue is at any particular point in time; that is usually dictated by the media, who benefit most from fear because fear sells newspapers, which means they can charge more for advertising space.
If it bleeds, it leads.
Having said that, if the media latch onto an issue that has no real substance, most policy advisors know it's a storm in a tea cup and will ride it out using classic rhetoric and spin. If the issue is real, then that becomes a problem and the teacup becomes a hurricane that requires long term commitment and funding.
In the case of the Rhino campaign, trams and cars do crash but they are usually minor accidents, and pedestrians do get hit, but they also get hit by taxi's and cars a lot more often. And sometimes there are single events that one would assume might generate fear but don't because they don't get the coverage....
Case in point: Two years ago a woman was cycling through the centre of town when a bus knocked her over. The driver panicked, reversed and in the process a wheel ran over her head, squashing it and spreading her brains and blood everywhere. It was lunch hour and the bus was full of Japanese tourists. Hundreds of people, including all the passengers on the bus, saw it happen yet no public campaign came out of that incident or any major newspaper coverage.
Why? Bad PR for the city of Melbourne and no good for tourism? Sure, but why didn't the newspapers run with it? What did they have to lose? Surely that could create fear and sell papers, so why not run with it?
Answer: Flight Centre (the biggest travel agency in Australia and who profit significantly from package tour groups from Asia) is one of the newspaper's biggest clients for advertising, so a little sensitivity given it happened in front of Japanese tourists was in order.
To answer your question of unwinding a fear containment policy isn't easy, however I'll give it a shot...
In my experience the only reason any government would want to 'unwind' a fear containment policy, even when the threat isn't there anymore or people are immune to it, is if something else takes its place or the economy suffers so much that the policy can no longer be justified.
When the money runs out, that's when things get interesting because fear mongering by different government departments and interest groups goes into over drive. Everybody wants the same thing; to maintain their position or visibility on the political landscape.
That is why the Australian Crime Commission has decided to release the information on drugs, organised crime and football players. Football is almost a religion in Australia, so the revelations that there is a 'culture' of players associating with gangsters and using drugs, raping women etc, is something most Australian's won't accept or dismiss with a 'bad apple' mentality.
The ACC has used its revelations to squash the bad apple mindset and generate a form of fear as a means of increasing their visibility and importance in the lead up to the Federal election. A quote from our Prime Minister on the weekend about her being 'sickened' by the revelations, but 'not agreeing with the release of the report' is proof enough. She can't cut funds to the ACC now when they have information that threatens the very fabric of our sporting culture. In effect, the ACC has released its own 30 rhinos to guard itself against its political vulnerability.
How it will unfold is yet to be determined, however I would suggest either a few players will need to be named and become part of the collateral damage, or a compromise will be reached where players won't be public named and the clubs can deal with it themselves. That keeps everyone happy once the threat (cut backs to the ACC) is abated and another issue arises. I doubt the Herald Sun will run a prolonged campaign against the football culture because it is the football fan's paper. Leveraging their fear to sell papers can only last so long before they don't want to know about it anymore.
In summary, when cutbacks to sensitive areas are needed a good policy adviser should either look for a diversion or some way of spin doctoring the success of the initiative, influencing the perception that the policy is no longer required. In my experience a change in government is usually when this happens because it's far easier to blame a previous government and scrap a costly or problematic policy. For example, people in Melbourne still blame a government that was in office 20 years ago for major changes to our mental health system that resulted in many mentally ill people being shot by police. The following government had 10 years in office to address this problem but never did, despite having the funds and to do so, yet people still blame the government which created the flawed policy.
It is kind of similar to the Olympics notion that nobody remembers who came second.
In the case of the rhino campaign, it is clever in the sense that it gains attention and popularity, and therefore achieves the goal of being seen to do something, but whether or not it changes behaviour (reduces accidents) is irrelevant. I'm cynical but that's the reality. Perception and visibility are the most import factors in politics. Most 'new strategies' are hollow bullets, even those with resources attached. In this case, the Rhino campaign was a part of a diversion designed to take people's attention off the bigger issues with public transport, such as over crowding, old infrastructure and a flawed Myki Card ticketing system.
To sum it up, what is popular never works, and what works is never popular!!
Cheers - great article!