Humorless Feds Want Digital Signs To Be Serious, But This Will Backfire

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Watch any dystopian film or play any video game featuring a post-apocalyptic dictatorship, and you’ll notice one very common element: endless state propaganda. Recorded speeches from the begrudgingly beloved strongman, signs commanding that you snitch on neighbors, and many other forms of citizen intimidation are the norm in those fictional environments.

Sadly, these stories and the aesthetics used in them are based on real world history. Regimes like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union really did use mass media to promote the government and intimidate its critics into silence and obedience.

Sadly, American highways started to feel a little like that a few years ago when digital message boards started to proliferate. “Drink, Drive, Go To Jail!” was a common message. “Speeding? We’ll catch you.” was another one. While the new signs were spreading important safety messages between being used to warn people about road conditions, the humorless and threatening nature of them made it feel like this guy was running the Highway Department:

But, eventually someone with a sense of humor got a job at a state DOT figuring out what to put on the signs. I don’t know who it was or what state they worked for, but whoever it was, they made the situation better. Instead of threatening us with fines and jail, humorous safety messages not only informed us, but entertained us and made the message stick.

But, the AP and many other news outlets are reporting that the Biden Administration isn’t happy, which makes sense when you consider that Vice President Kamala Harris is basically the female equivalent of the “straight to jail” guy above.

This story out of Arizona does a pretty good job of summarizing the story:

Why The Feds’ Seriousness WILL Backfire

As a habitual but sneaky speeder myself (but only in Mexico, of course), I’ve actually slowed down for a funny sign. Instead of threatening me, the sign reminded me about safety without trying to make me feel bad. So, I was open to the message.

But, when signs threaten jail, fines, and tell you that you’re a terrible person, people are a lot less likely to listen. If anything, someone speeding might flip the overly serious sign off and go a little faster. Why? Because human beings are more open to being asked than told what to do. Add a little bit of humor, and the ice is completely broken.

I go into much greater detail here on another website, but in sum, it’s all about communication. Whether you want to call it Verbal Judo or “tactical communication”, the goal of any government communication needs to be getting voluntary compliance. When anyone from the lady at the DMV to the cop walking the sidewalk to the President of the United States instead opts to start bossing people around or threatening them, they often end up getting the exact opposite of what they want.

Barriers to communication can be difficult to get through, but a mix of humor plus a polite request to do the right thing in infinitely more effective than threatening people. When you raise barriers instead of lowering them, people will fight you just to save face. It’s human nature.

But, Pete Buttigieg seems like a nice guy. I hope him and his team think this over instead of being humorless hall monitors on this.

Featured image by Arizona DOT, caption added.

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