Beyond “See Something, Say Something”

A recent New York Times article chronicled the origins of the now ubiquitous “See Something, Say Something” campaign to enlist the help of the general public in thwarting terrorist threats by reporting suspicious activities. The slogan, the brainchild of Allen Kay at Korey Kay & Partners and conceived in the wake of 911,  has done just that, with thousands of reports each year.

While the article does mention that the campaign has been criticized by artists and activists, it misses two key points: the first relates to the rise in such slogans’ use and the second relates to the differences among them.

  1. The real use of “See Something, Say Something” and slogans like it (see table below, which I compiled  in 2006) really took off in the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings after it was widely reported that many people saw suspicious bags and packages but did not report them.
  2. There are significant differences between how various cities choose to involve the public in these campaigns. In North America, “See Something, Say Something” has been widely adopted by most cities whereas Europe and Asia have taken different approaches, from no campaign at all (one transit official replied to my email saying they “saw no need to worry passengers”) to slogans that tend to emphasize collective endeavor (“Attentif, Ensemble [alert, together]” in Paris or “It’s up to all of us” in London).  Whether these more collective appeals are indicative of a less personally suspicious society or a way of compensating for a more divided one remains a mystery, but the difference in approaches is worth pondering.

As with any public service campaign the trick seems to be balancing between creating fear and prompting action. Given that “See Something, Say Something” is so engrained into mass transit in the US, you could argue that this balance has been reached organically, but it’s interesting to think about how we all would have reacted if Allen Kay had come up with something less easily interpreted as “spying on each other” and more about evoking a sense of “we are all in this together.”


List of Subway Systems Public Safety Campaigns, 2006

New York  “If You See Something, Say Something” also briefly “Good Call.” (perhaps removed for its similarity to a beer commercial tagline a few years earlier?)
Boston “If You See Something, Say Something” 
LA “Safety begins with me”
San Francisco “Whose Bag? If you see something usual, say something.”  “We’ve increased our alertness. Please join us.”  “Bomb Detectors [w/photo of eyes]” 
Baltimore “If You See Something, Say Something” 
Chicago “If You See something, Say Something” 
New Jersey PATH Now’s the time to report something, not when it’s on the news. If it looks suspicious, it is suspicious.”
Washington DC “Terrorism is the threat. Complacency is the accomplice.”
Montreal “To report is to help.”
Paris Attentifs, Ensemble (alert/aware, together)
London “It’s up to all of us.”  “Life-Savers”  “If you suspect it, report it.”