Don't be offended, voters, but we'd rather you didn't do that

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SMALL CHILDREN live in our street, some of them mine. So far, the street has no speed humps. It is also straight. This induces car drivers to put their feet down for a 15-second blaze of speed and uproar, before slowing to squeal round the corner. I throw an imaginary brick after them.

Few, if any, of these drivers are breaking the speed limit. That is why the new road-safety advertisement on television is helpful. The driver, apparently a normal young man, has collided with a teenage girl pedestrian and killed her. She lies there, with a realistic amount of blood coming out of her head. Her ghost then appears and upbraids the motorist, who retorts weakly that he was 'not speeding'. Technically, he was not. But he was driving much too fast in the context of how much he could see and the movement of pedestrians close to him. The ghost gives him a suitably hard time.

This is a good advertisement - apart from the ghost. Why does she have to be there, kneeling beside her own corpse and sobbing? The style of the ad is a hard realism, so at first I supposed that the ghost was a twin sister. Anyway, if the message is meant to hurt and scare, as it should, ought it not to be a mother who bends over her dead daughter and then rises to look straight into the face of her killer? Prison is less of a deterrent than that. But instead we got this ghost.

I think I know why. The ghost, in effect, sends a reassuring wink to the viewer. The ghost says: 'Yeah, we know this is all a bit heavy, and we know you personally are a pretty careful driver. But this is really meant for the twoccers and mad geeks out on the council estate. So don't take offence.' This amounts to marching bad news to the top of the hill and then marching it half-way down. What kind of deflated message is left? If you want to tell drivers that they will kill people unless they grasp that 'too fast' can be 25mph, then you tell them straight, without the aid of ghosts, Mr Blobby, Roland Rat or the Seven Dwarfs.

Even so, this advertisement has not gone down well. There has been press comment and television comment and it has been edged into the 'after 9pm only' slot. Nobody comes clean about what is supposed to be wrong with it, except that the problem is plainly not the ghost. On the contrary. Even with the teenage phantom for light relief, this production is held to be a bit . . . well, the word 'controversial' has fallen, although nobody has gone as far as to use the terrible term 'inappropriate' (as in: 'Cutting his mother's head off to steal her piggy-bank was inappropriate'). The feeling seems to be that the advertisement is in some kind of poor taste. It is a bit blunt and rude. It might even upset the viewer.

We have arrived at a real corner in the history of publicity. The public announcement is dead] Long live the public-interest advertisement] In other words, the principles of any commercial advertising agency are now to be applied to government warnings and announcements.

The first of these principles is not to make the target feel bad. Don't offend the motorist. Flatter him, flatter her] Don't pillory the litter- lout, cat-smuggler or cigarette smoker. Crack a deferential joke with them, and then suggest that they

will be even more vibrant human beings if they choose to smuggle fewer cats. Let the Government Health Warning on the packet become part of the design - so that now, almost certainly, it would be enough to run a poster carrying nothing but the words 'Cigarette Smoking Kills' to ensure continuing sales.

This is a new departure. In the old days, governments were not afraid to proclaim 'Don't', or 'Bad'. This was not just a matter of 'All curfew-breakers are criminals and will be shot'. It was a sovereign indifference to whether people wanted to hear something unwelcome or not. This could be bracing, as in 'Is Your Journey Really Necessary?' (fuel rationing), or merely Orwellian. I remember dawn in Chungking China some years ago, as the masses poured gloomily forth to work and quacking female voices poured out of the loudspeakers: 'Be alert] Perform good, conscientious labour] Don't slack, don't exchange bad thoughts and rumours] Remember to take exercise] Clean your teeth, don't spit in the bus . . .'

The first road-safety poster in my memory, a famous one, was The Widow. She just stood there in black, yellow-faced, looking like a living corpse herself. I can't recall what the words said - something obvious, like 'Careless Driving Kills', although there was a tendency to scribble 'I voted Labour' underneath her. She made no attempt to make anyone feel good. She upset everyone, in that innocent age, and probably saved lives.

Another poster series, even older, violated all principles of modern advertising by demonising people who spent money; it featured a revolting, hairy insect called the Squanderbug which scuttled about betraying the nation by actually buying things. As the shops were empty, and everybody was frantically trying to buy food and clothing on the black market, the feel-good content of this campaign was zero. Instead it made the British feel guilty, a pretty normal reaction to government in those days.

In the old Spanish ballad, the Moorish king killed the messenger who told him that the Alhambra had fallen and threw his message in the fire. Now we have consumer sovereignty. It is the Moors who are expected to throw not only bad news but the king himself into the flames. In the 1940s, Churchill offered only blood, sweat, toil and tears, and in the 1950s Chancellor Adenauer repeated every few months that 'the situation was never so grave as it is today'. Would John Major or Helmut Kohl go on television and tell their people that they were in a real mess which would take years to put right? Would they even take the responsibility for saying that bad drivers ought to feel bad?

This smarminess is not democracy, not even cowardice. It is manipulation. A populace which is never offended, whose habits are flattered rather than challenged, ceases to be vigilant about what the state is up to. But those who lick your boots may also be tying your bootlaces together.