Opinion

Looking beyond awards to real-world impact: The ‘Bridge of Life’ campaign in Korea

Dave Trott looks at the long-term effects of the award-winning campaign 'Bridge of Life', which aimed to reverse suicide rates on the Mapo bridge in Seoul, South Korea, but critics argue achieved the opposite

In 2013, the Cannes Titanium Lion went to a campaign called Bridge of Life. In fact, the campaign won 37 awards around the world.

So it was a success, at least as far as awards went.

And that’s pretty much the only metric advertising measures anything by.

But was it a success by any other metric, like what happens in the real world? Well, that isn’t quite so clear.

The back story is the Mapo bridge in Seoul was famous for suicides. In fact it was known as the Bridge of Death.

The normal way to stop people jumping off a bridge would be to put up railings or fences, to make it physically impossible to jump.

But this didn’t seem very creative to the advertising agency or their client. So they ignored that idea and instead spent the money on emotional triggers.

As people walked across the bridge sensors would switch on lights to illuminate messages.

“Worries Are Nothing”

“Tomorrow’s Sun Will Rise”

“I Love You”

“The Best Is Yet to Come”

“Have You Been Eating Alright?”

“Let’s Walk Together”

“What’s Troubling You?”

In the centre of the bridge was a bronze life-size sculpture of a young man on a bench, touching the cheek of another young man. Also there was a selection of illuminated images: photographs of babies, grandparents, young couples smiling.

This, the awards jury were told, caused the bridge to be renamed, from ‘Bridge of Death’ to ‘Bridge of Life’.

And as usual, on the submission video, there followed a string of statistics. The main one was that suicides had fallen by 77% because of the installation.

Which is why it won all those awards.

But about a year after it won, some people expressed different views. On Sora News 24 the headline said: “Seoul Anti-Suicide Initiative Backfires”.

According to them, the statistics showed an increase in suicides due to people being drawn to the now famous bridge.

The Yohap News Agency said that attempted suicides rose to 396 in 2014, 543 in 2015, and 532 in 2016. The advertising agency responded that this was a mistranslation.

These figures were for people who came to the bridge contemplating suicide but changed their minds.

They said, correctly interpreted, the true figures were 15 attempted suicides with eight actual fatalities, a greatly reduced number.

But other figures show 24-hour telephone counselling lines staffed by 6,000 volunteers stopped at least 85 people from jumping.

The debate is confused and unresolved, and gradually it petered out.

Last year’s awards were old news, all everyone cared about was this year’s awards.

Meanwhile the authorities say they are now putting up higher railings at Mapo bridge. 2.5 metres high instead of 1.5 metres.

Evidently the authorities don’t believe an emotional appeal is superior to physical barriers.

So how about the installation, did it do its job, did it work? Well yes, because it won awards. Which is after all, the real job for any piece of advertising or marketing.

Dave Trott is a consultant, author and former ad agency creative director. This article was first published on his blog

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