If You See Something, Say Something ~ A Case Study on Changing Attitudes

If You See Something, Say SomethingBy Ruth Zamoyta
May 2013

Knowing that cops and security squads can’t be everywhere all the time, and knowing that the New York City transit system is an attractive target for terrorists because it is critical infrastructure, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has enlisted civilians as guardians of their city through the If You See Something, Say Something™ campaign. They call civilians ‘the first line of defense’ and bombard regular commuters with posters and public service announcements (PSAs), encouraging them not to assume that suspicious bags are left behind by accident. Yet in May, 2013, my partner and I ran an informal survey of New Yorkers age 18 and up who ride the subway at least three times per week, and of the 64 respondents, 15.5% said they had seen a suspicious item or behavior in the past and decided not to report it.

After assessing the MTA’s current campaign and analyzing the strategic challenges, we saw an opportunity for the MTA to take advantage of the recent memory of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings and launch a new wave of the If You See Something, Say Something communications campaign. The goal of our campaign was to convince all MTA passengers in the Times Square subway station to report all suspicious items and suspicious behavior they see in the weeks leading up to the 2013 New York City Marathon, and the MTA would achieve this by amplifying passengers’ sense of community and empowerment.

Besides the core challenge, which is to ratchet up vigilance without causing alarm, there were technological challenges, such as a forgettable hotline number and poor-to-no mobile-phone signal throughout the subway system. There was also a logistical challenge: no standard for police or MTA presence on subway platforms, on trains, or in stations. And there was an advertising challenge, calling for a new wave of ads that would wake people up with new visuals, yet retain the benefit of the subliminal effects of repetition.

The main challenge rested, however, in the following prevailing attitudes among passengers who decide not to report: desire to remain anonymous, too rushed to stop, distrust in the authorities, “someone else will report it,” and “oh, it’s nothing.”

We proposed that the MTA should face these challenges by turning their strategy around 180°.

We proposed a variety of messages and tactics, but most importantly, we recommended that the MTA should eliminate bad attitudes by inverting the following premises to those attitudes:

“Authorities can stop terrorism” becomes “I can protect my community” = EMPOWERMENT

“It’s all about me” becomes “It’s all about us” = COMMUNITY

All messaging, we noted, should be focused on these two ideals: empowerment and community. The MTA needs to humanize its campaign and tell stories not of people planting bombs but of people enjoying life in New York City. Ads should be designed to make viewers think of their own families, neighbors, and friends, appealing to the sense of community. The ads should not feature photos of bags implicitly filled with explosives, but rather photos of fellow New Yorkers.

The MTA needs to show people not dialing a phone, but making direct human contact while reporting a suspicious bag or behavior. MTA employees and police officers who are portrayed in the ads should appear professional, approachable, “human,” confident, and genuinely concerned.

Keep the messages short and sweet:  Seconds count, all reports are taken seriously, don’t stop looking for an officer until you find one, people who make reports are appreciated (not investigated), and, most importantly, “the city is in your hands.”

Signage on trains and in stations has been very effective, but for this campaign, the MTA should post the ads everywhere: on every ad space in the station, in and on the trains, and even in places you don’t ordinarily see ads—on girders, train clocks, the yellow strip on the edge of the platform.  The MTA should offer regular advertisers an opportunity to sponsor the campaign ads (their logos would be displayed with a “thank you”) in order to staunch the loss of ad revenue. Give corporations the chance to be heroes, too.

Give the ads a new visual identity. Incorporate an autumnal palette instead of the patriotic red, white, and blue, and the alarming yellow. Soften the typeface with Rounded Arial. By making the visuals warmer and more inviting, the MTA will establish the right mood for the new message: not fear of terror but care about the community.

Video PSAs should demonstrate passengers’ persistence in following through with reports. The PSAs should show people how to exercise this power that they have. For example, one PSA might show a passenger discovering an unattended bag on the platform, noticing a mother playing with her baby nearby, unsuccessfully looking for an official on the platform, and then proceeding up the stairs to the turnstiles where she finds a police officer.

Engage the New York community in a social media campaign, inviting City residents to create songs, videos, artwork, or infographics, showing their love of and pride in their community.

A crucial element is internal engagement within the MTA. Uniformed MTA officers should be trained to expect more face-to-face reports, acknowledge and appreciate them, and act immediately. A presentation of the new campaign should be made to employees on all levels so that they understand the goal of amplifying passengers’ sense of community and empowerment.

Metrics should be in place in the beginning with benchmarking studies, and the MTA should follow through with focus groups, surveys, contests, analytics, content analysis, press, and mentions calculated regularly in order to gauge effectiveness week by week, reassess tactics, and redirect resources if necessary.


We started this project before the Boston Marathon bombings, and when that sad event came to pass, our project took on a greater urgency. We feel that the 2013 New York City marathon will be marked by a show solidarity with Boston runners and fans, and this is an excellent opportunity to penetrate mindset and turn around attitudes by lending a new look, a new message, and new tactics to an old-but-good campaign: If You See Something, Say Something.
If You See Something, Say Something

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