Few characters can claim that they have saved 85,000 lives quite like the Crash Test Dummies, Vince and Larry. We may look at them as a lighthearted, loveable duo now, but when the pair first appeared they were on a mission to prove the best way to be safe inside of a car meant buckling your safety belt. Let’s take a step back in time to the ‘80s to see where they got their start, how they flipped the script on the traditional PSA, and their enduring impact as brand mascots — or should we say brand dummies?
It might seem impossible to think about now, but there was a time not too long ago when buckling your seat belt just wasn’t the norm. The federal government moved to change this behavior in the early 1980s, with the U.S. Department of Transportation partnering alongside The Ad Council. Their goal was to create a safety belt education campaign with the message that safety belts could save lives. USDOT had done plenty of research — with surveys uncovering that in 1985, only 21% of Americans were buckling up — but they didn’t know what to do with all this information. Even the agency within USDOT, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was all out of ideas after depicting horrific deaths that could have been prevented with the help of safety belts. It was time to bring in the creatives: The Ad Council recruited ad agency Leo Burnett for the campaign.
Together, The Ad Council and Leo Burnett decided against a traditional, shocking PSA in favor of one that addressed the issue with a sense of humor. Leo Burnett creatives Jim Ferguson and Joel Machak dreamed up two dummies coming to life. In one early idea, Vince and Larry tried to hide to avoid getting inside of a car because they knew a gory outcome awaited them on the other side. That idea was scraped —particularly since it wasn't funny — for Machak’s approach that the duo actually loved their jobs.
Just like that, they were off and running. Their famous tagline “you could learn a lot from a dummy… buckle your safety belt” was penned by Ferguson, wardrobe designer Wanda Watkins created their iconic costumes for their commercial spots, and the Crash Test Dummies made their debut in 1986.
The campaign for the Crash Test Dummies was an instant success, making pop culture stars out of Vince and Larry and reaching consumers with its groundbreaking work. The safety belt campaign earned more than $337 million in donated time and space during Vince and Larry’s first six years and reached critical acclaim, receiving an Addy and two CLIO awards.
Most importantly, consumers paid attention to these commercials. The spots, which depicted the joking dummies driving along without seatbelts on and being impacted by a sudden crash, gave viewers a scary glimpse at what happens when you don’t wear your safety belt. Safety belt usage rose to 59% in the early 1990s and continue to steadily rise to 67% in 1999, the year that Vince and Larry retired.
Yes, the Crash Test Dummies are now retired — gone, but definitely not forgotten. The legacy they left is unlike that of any brand mascot of its kind, with the NHTSA estimating that safety belts save 14,000 lives each year and the usage percentage continuing to rise with drivers and passengers everywhere. You can even find their costumes and seat belts as part of the National Museum of American History collections. We learned a lot from a dummy, as it turns out, and it’s impossible to imagine the world without them.