“Gangnam Style” may be the most viral YouTube video of all time, but a pre-Internet viral media campaign started at Harvard has it beat hands down in the social good department (and maybe in terms of virality, too).

You know it as the designated driver campaign. And in the 2 decades since it kicked off, it’s saved thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.

Here’s how it came to be.

The Harvard Alcohol Project changed nights on the town forever

Inspired by a similar program initiated in the Scandinavian nations during the 1920s (or the mid-1980s, depending on your source), the Harvard Alcohol Project, led by associate dean Jay Winsten, initiated a social marketing campaign with the aid of the media and communications industries.

What truly set the campaign apart was the way it sought to foster awareness of the concept. Instead of relying solely on public service announcements (PSAs) — of which there were many successful manifestations, including the Ad Council’s “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” slogan — Winsten and company urged major Hollywood studios, as well as television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC, to incorporate the “designated driver” into their scripts.

Just one of the many memorable PSAs that helped propel the Designated Driver program.

The designated driver becomes reality … through TV and movies

Soon, hugely successful shows like Cheers, The Cosby Show, and many more were incorporating snippets of dialogue, sub-plots, scenes, and jokes referencing the “designated driver.” In fact, within the first 4 years after the campaign’s 1988 launch, over 160 prime-time shows incorporated references to the idea.

This was the first time that the big 3 TV networks ran simultaneous campaigns with the same message. And according to industry estimates, the Project received over $100 million of network airtime annually, despite having a real budget under $300,000.

After TV and movie studios picked up the concept, it wasn’t long before everybody from U.S. presidents to professional sports leagues jumped on it too. By 1991, just 3 years after the campaign kicked off, the term “designated driver” became a social reality as an entry in the Random House Webster’s College Dictionary.

Why the designated driver campaign worked

The strength of the designated driver idea lies in a simple reality of TV consumption: people don’t like watching commercials. And when we do watch them, we tend to associate commercials with attempts to sell us something — even when it’s simply a public service announcement.

On the other hand, the characters in TV shows can be admirable, inspiring, or just simply relevant, resonating with our own personal sense of humor, fears, and aspirations. So when they start talking about a concept like “designated driving,” it seems less like an idea we’re being asked to adopt and more like an existing social reality.

In other words, it takes the persuasion out of the equation. Viewers don’t have to be convinced to accept the concept or champion the cause because the fictional worlds of movies and TV shows have already made it a “reality.”

Designated driving leads to fewer alcohol-related fatalities

Some of the more skeptical among you might be thinking, “Okay, so the social marketing campaign worked. But how effective is the concept itself in curbing drunk driving?”

The fact is the designated driver program has had seriously positive effects on the number of those killed due to drunk driving. When the campaign began in late 1988, 23,626 people a year died in alcohol-related crashes. By 1992, annual fatalities dropped to 17,858 — a decrease of 24 percent!

Esurance is doing its part … and you can too

We’re also doing our part to encourage designated driving during the holiday season (when the wine, nog, and toddies tend to be flowing), and we’re asking for your help. Head over to our Facebook page to thank the designated drivers who’ve made your nights on the town safe and sane, or ask a friend to tackle the task this year.

Safe and smart | Travel hacks

about John

John Moore Williams has spent his writing career providing advice on everything from proper septic system care to where to eat in Nice (and, during his tenure at Esurance, how to find the right insurance coverages). An avid descriptive grammarian, he encourages you to end sentences with prepositions and to split infinitives whenever possible.