Baiting car thieves

Niche marketing has been driven to new extremes by the Vancouver Police Department, which launched a $700,000 campaign last month to talk to car thieves.

Niche marketing has been driven to new extremes by the Vancouver Police Department, which launched a $700,000 campaign last month to talk to car thieves.

The Bait Car program, supported by the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) and E-Comm (a dispatcher called Emergency Communications Southwest BC), is designed to reduce the number of car thefts in the City of Vancouver. About 7,000 cars representing $28 million in value are stolen in Greater Vancouver each year, making the region one of the car-theft capitals of the world. There are about 300 hard-core car thieves on the prowl.

‘Advertising is being used as a crime prevention tool,’ says Inspector Robert Taylor, head of the Stolen Auto Unit at the VPD. ‘Most advertising centres around innocent citizens and how to be safe, but this is aimed aggressively at the criminal.’

Based on programs in Minneapolis, Hamilton, Ont., Winnipeg and elsewhere, Vancouver’s Bait Car campaign uses vehicles outfitted with global positioning systems, audio and video recorders, silent alarms and remote control engine disablers to lure and catch bad guys. (And they are guys, since the target audience for the campaign is males aged 16 to 24.)

In Vancouver, two bait cars were stolen in the first few days of the campaign, leading to two arrests. But the number of thefts that have been deterred by the publicity is harder to factor, says Taylor. In Minneapolis, vehicle thefts dropped 40% compared to a five-year average and in Hamilton, car thefts dropped 24% since a similar program launched there in April.

‘Thousands of stolen cars represent a major public safety risk,’ says Taylor. ‘The crimes committed using stolen cars and the unknown number of hit-and-run accidents all translate into injuries, trauma, and frustration.’

While some Bait Car programs are covert, this one is overt, relying heavily on advertising to get the word out. The campaign, orchestrated by Palmer Jarvis DDB, Vancouver, involves mostly posters in bus shelters, SkyTrain stations and washrooms in dodgy pubs and hangouts.

‘We targeted bars you just don’t want to spend time in,’ says account director Scot Keith, explaining that the media planners worked with police mapping systems to determine the prime hot spots where car thieves work. Other target audiences are drug users, joy riders and the general public who finally get to hear a message that the police are being proactive, rather than reactive, about crime.

The cost of the media: $500,000, including page-dominant ads in The Province daily newspaper and 30-second spots on radio stations such as Z95.3FM, CFOX and CFMI.

One radio promotion, scheduled for late in October, involves the morning team at The Beat driving around in a pseudo-Bait Car, which listeners can track through GPS on the station’s Web site for prizes.

Meanwhile, a 13-foot mousetrap will travel around to various Vancouver locations to foster awareness and word-of-mouth. The program has already earned extensive high profile news coverage and other PR. Spots will roll out at the end of the year or early next year on BCTV Global Television. Simon Fraser University criminologist Patricia Brantingham is studying the effects of the program as part of a one-year research program.

As the main auto insurer in B.C., ICBC put up $600,000 to the project budget, says Dennis St. Aubin, portfolio manager for the auto crime strategies, and the deterrence program is conservatively expected to save the Crown Corporation about $2.1 million in the first year. Vehicles for the fleet of Bait Cars came from actual stolen cars recovered after ICBC paid out the car theft victims. As spin-off benefits, the campaign is expected to reduce the number of hit-and-run crimes and vehicle break-ins.

‘This is the largest advertising budget for this kind of program anywhere in the world,’ says St. Aubin, who says there is a lot of enthusiasm to expand the Bait Car campaign to Surrey and other Greater Vancouver municipalities plagued by car theft.

‘The worst thing for a criminal is the loss of anonymity,’ he says, explaining that video capturing car thieves at work will make it to television. Passengers who abet the car thieves will also face prosecution because their activities will be taped.

Other sponsors include NavLynx Technologies (Canada), Oakridge Centre Mall, EasyPark and Securiguard.

Even car thieves like it

In a CTV news segment, Surrey, B.C. residents declared themselves pleased with the campaign, including one man who identified himself as a car thief. Unfortunately for him, the Surrey RCMP also watch the news. They recognized the man who had already been nabbed for stealing eight cars and got suspicious. Turns out that the vehicle he was driving at the time of the interview was likely stolen.