It’s hard to imagine a more politically tone-deaf set of ads than the three currently in circulation by the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary ostensibly as part of a recruiting campaign.
The 15 - , 30 – , and 60-second spots are all similar. They start with a shot of the police tactical team in black clothes, military helmets and MP-5 automatic weapons, all set to burst into a house. The music is dark and ominous, as are virtually all the images. Even the sequences involving the largely ceremonial mounted patrol take on a decidedly sinister or threatening tone.
Just to give you a sense of how incredibly heavy-handed the Constabulary advertising is, take a look at a Canadian Forces recruiting ad from 2011. It shows personal challenges and lots of physical activity. The images are full of light and action. The messaging issues a challenge to a potential recruit based on his or her individual expectations.
That makes sense in an ad where you are trying to attract people to join an organization.
Now go back and look at an RNC ad of the same length. Radically different, aren’t they?
Just to make sure you don’t think this is just an odd coincidence, here’s another Canadian Forces recruiting ad. Note how it focuses on the positive, helpful things Canadian Forces members do in rescues at sea and in the far north. The Constabulary does the same sorts of things but not according to those ads.
The RNC ads are ostensibly about recruiting, but it’s pretty clear pretty quickly they have nothing to do with attracting people to join the police. They are about public concerns about crime. The ads are a very clumsy, very hastily produced effort to send a message to people worried about crime, especially on the north-east Avalon where all the footage was shot.
By the public reaction over the weekend, the ads aren’t working. A savage parody turned up that mashed the RNC spots with tourism commercials to produce a spot about a place where we are used to taking people captive. People who are worried about crime will likely be more worried now that the police have shown they need to be heavily armed and highly aggressive to work in St. John’s. If the agency that produced these actually tested them on people other than fans of first-person shooter games, it’s doubtful these scored very highly, at least not with a focus group that wasn’t torqued somehow.
If there is significant public anxiety about crime in the metro Sin Jawns region, the appropriate police response would be a more complicated, more nuanced campaign to reassure the public than producing these ads. One important thing to do would be to work with local news media to change their reporting. Hyping break-ins as “home invasions” will boost ratings but it will also freak out Nan and Pop. The RNC also needs to remind people over and over that they have a very good success rate at fighting crime.
Another important thing to do is let people see the individual police members being the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officers for the highly trained, highly competent professionals they are. These ads don’t show that. They show a caricature. People need to see real police officers doing their jobs to have a sense of confidence in their ability to protect the public. If they saw Constabulary officers as they actually are, there wouldn’t be an ounce of concern for public safety anywhere in the province.
What the police need, in other words isn’t a “media relations” officer or the help of an advertising agency. They need a competent public relations counsel. The police need someone who can help them connect in a substantive way with the people who are interested in what they do. That’s easy to say but it sure isn’t easy to do, nor is it easy to find someone who can do it. But those people are out there and the police would do well to invest the time to find someone who can help them.
A good public relations program would actually cost the RNC no more than those recruiting ads. As it is, the force, is going to have to spend a lot more money to undo the damage their ads have done and those things didn’t come cheaply the first time.
And as for recruits who respond to these ads, the police might want to run them through an extra battery of psych evals before taking them out on the range. The chance of getting an extra load of Eugene Tackleberries from those piss-poor ads is unacceptably high.