Lots of things go viral–cute kittens, political rants, celebrity screw-ups. But what if something caught fire that actually did some good? Advertising innovator Steve Babcock wants to see it happen. And not to fulfill any client dream either, but to achieve a simple universal good: to stop people from texting while driving. A reformed texting driver himself, Babcock has devised a proudly analog solution to this vexing digital temptation. Paint your thumb red, he advises, and it will trigger your brain to leave the phone alone. Studies have shown we do self-regulate like this; for example, confronted by signs that post a car’s approaching speed, most people slow down. It’s called a feedback loop. As Babcock attests in this video: “I painted my thumbnail bright red. All I could see was a big red thumb reminding me to put the phone back down. I went from being one of the worst offenders on the road to having absolutely no habitual desire to use my phone while driving. I simply couldn’t overlook my big red thumb.” Inspired by the old school technique of tying a string around one’s finger as a reminder, Babcock’s red thumb solution is a truly modern mashup–it’s Emily Post meets Facebook post.
Another bonus: everywhere he goes people ask Babcock about that red thumb of his, and the distracted driving conversation moves front and center. Whatever works: a Harvard study found that texting while driving kills more 3,000 Americans a year, and injures nearly 400,000. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an “average of 4.6 seconds, the equivalent — when traveling at 55 mph — of driving the length of an entire football field.” The Red Thumb Reminder movement hasn’t gone viral yet. Sometimes simple ideas break through organically, finding passionate adopters and evangelists. Most times, however, it takes money–as any good ad man knows. Speaking of money, Evolution Bureau, the SF-based shop where Babcock is a partner and creative director, counts among its clients the NFL, Nike, Microsoft, Facebook and General Electric–all companies that do plenty of public service. Red thumbs, anybody?