New DHS disaster preparedness ads play down terrorism

Homeland Security officials say the agency is now moving toward an “all hazards” campaign.

The Homeland Security Department has rolled out a new crop of commercials designed make families aware of the need to prepare for catastrophic emergencies including the aftermath of terrorism.

However, the new public service announcements never mention terrorism as they direct viewers to the government disaster preparedness Web site

While the Web site's focus was explicitly on terrorism when it was launched in 2003, Homeland Security officials said the agency is now moving toward an "all hazards" campaign.

The new ads feature families realizing during a documentary-style interview that they are generally unprepared to deal with an emergency situation. They stumble into that realization with a smile, seemingly bemused at their own failure to think about preparedness. Each commercial is set to the same jaunty, slightly folksy guitar tune.

The televisions spots, produced free of charge by the New York firm BBDO along with the Advertising Council, are a stark contrast to a more alarmist tack taken in the past.

An older Spanish language commercial, still featured on the Ad Council Web site, is much darker in tone and focused directly on terrorism. Its approach echoes the rhetoric used by former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge when he announced the campaign in 2003.

He appeared on CNN to warn Americans of the unpredictable nature of terrorism and to remind them to make an emergency kit that included duct tape and premeasured plastic sheeting to create a home shelter from chemical weapons.

"The next attack could happen to any community at any time," Ridge said then. "Terrorists force us to make a choice: We can be afraid or we can be ready. American's aren't afraid, and we will be ready."

In the Spanish-language public service announcement two angels -- an element the Homeland Security Department said was specific to the Spanish ads because research showed "it's something that would appeal to Hispanics" -- look out over a darkened city from a high hillside.

"They can't see the threat, so they don't feel the danger," the first angel says, going on to remind the second angel that "the crab that is not aware of the tide is swept out to sea."

An announcer then tells viewers in Spanish: "Even if you don't think about it, the possibility of a terrorist attack is real. Are you ready?"

The older commercials for were "more terrorism-focused," said Homeland Security spokeswoman Joanna Gonzalez. The Spanish-language advertisements, like their English-language counterparts, are being redone, she said.

The new concepts are part of a long look at what is needed to actually persuade Americans to plan for the emergencies, including terrorism: "What do we need in an advertisement to get someone to actually act?" Gonzalez said. "You need a motivator. These ads have real families."

Along with the commercials, the Web site itself has changed drastically. In 2003, the main page of the site declared "Terrorism forces us to make a choice. … Don't be afraid. Be ready." There are links to information about what might happen in the event of biological, chemical, nuclear and radiological attacks.

In the Web site's most recent iteration in 2006, the word terrorism does not appear on the site's home page. Instead, a smiling family sits on their porch. Families are advised to "Prepare. Plan. Stay informed."

Information about what to do in the event of fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes has been added the tips about what to do in the event of WMD attacks.

Michael Stebbins, a scientist with the Federation of American Scientists, applauded the shift. His organization has been critical of in the past, and even created an alternative site called that the group says has more complete information on preparedness.

"I think the move away from terrorism probably reflects the fact that it's not resonating as well anymore and people don't want to be scared anymore," Stebbins said. "It's better to reach out and appeal to them on a different level."

"Talking about terrorism events specifically only scares somebody and it actually misses the point," he said, adding that the real goal is spurring someone to devise an emergency plan.

The new ads went out to television stations in mid-November, but it is impossible to know yet when they are going to be televised, said Ellyn Fisher, an Ad Council spokeswoman. The site has registered more than 1.7 billion hits since it was launched.

A survey in February 2004 found that the percentage of parents who stock emergency supplies had increased from 28 percent to 40 percent since the beginning of the campaign. The number of families that had created an emergency plan had increased from 17 to 27 percent.