On a Monday morning, up in the Leo Burnett building, they looked like a couple of young advertising execs taking advantage of a corporate policy pushing on-the-job fitness. Casually dressed, they carried bulky gym bags into the elevator.

“Are you the dummies?” asked a badly dressed third passenger.

A few minutes before, the U.S. secretary of transportation and the CEO of Leo Burnett Company, Inc. had posed with a couple of people who were impersonating test dummies named Vince and Larry, those humanoid mannequins used to study the effects of car wrecks on passengers. Vince and Larry said nothing all morning. Their repertoire was confined to thumbs-up gestures and turning toward cameras.

There are other Vince and Larry clones on tour around the state, visiting public schools and county fairs. The actual number and gender of these Vinces and Larrys is a low-level state secret kept by the Illinois Department of Transportation.

Leo Burnett–the corporation, not the guy (he’s dead now)–said that 66 percent of Americans were “aware of” Vince and Larry. Bartles & James, another couple of advertising beings, don’t rate that high. Nor does McGruff the Crime Dog, nor Morris the cat-food pusher. Better yet, 78 percent “like Vince and Larry very much.” That beats even Smokey the Bear. Born in 1985 as public-service creatures, Vince and Larry have starred in 27 TV spots preaching “Buckle Up, Don’t Be Dummies.”

Sam Skinner, Bush’s czar of trains, planes, and automobiles, noted that “more people died in traffic accidents yesterday than died in combat for the entire 100-hour war in the Middle East.” By dead people he meant–in both cases–Americans, not the Iraqi commuters (with or without seat belts) we bombed into ultimate gridlock on that highway heading out of Kuwait City.

Last month, in a gilded downtown ballroom, Skinner confided to an audience of lunching lawyers that his first appearance before the bench came when he was caught driving underage and over the speed limit. Monday he told the audience of advertising execs he could recall teenage illusions of invincibility. “I drove boldly,” he admitted. (Later in the day he was criticized at an environmental-design forum for driving around in a car on his official visits instead of taking public transportation.)

Vince and Larry were in town to help save the lives of death-defying young men who drive without seat belts. Apparently American males aged 15-25 happen to like Vince and Larry very much but think that seat-belt messages apply only to those less skilled drivers out there, not them. Though 16 percent of all drivers say they never wear seat belts, 37 percent of young males say they never do. In focus-group studies they say that wearing seat belts makes them look like sissies and signals a lack of confidence in their own driving skills. So in a new commercial Vince and Larry go to an Iron Maiden concert and observe, “This headbanging is more fun than going through a windshield.”

Bush has set a goal of 70 percent seat-belt usage in 1992, for all ages. Skinner said that if the new heavy-metal campaign helps, he would invite Iron Maiden’s lead singer Bruce Dickinson to lunch at the White House mess. Later Skinner refigured his deal, and offered to attend an Iron Maiden concert instead.

In a new TV ad aimed at a different segment of the culture, Vince and Larry tour an art gallery. Inside an ornate frame, a pained “Moaning Lisa” stares aghast at her own severed hand. Buckle up, or else. Clever and macabre, the Vince and Larry spots employ humor very effectively, but according to Skipp Calvert, public affairs director for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, that approach goes nowhere in ads against drunk driving. Those spots have to be humorless to work.

Vince and Larry humored local TV personalities reporting from the event. Skinner kissed one of the spokesdummies on the head. Down in the Leo Burnett lobby (decorated with a John Chamberlain sculpture made of junked car debris), Vince and Larry said they could not speak. Their voices on TV and radio belong to other actors, one of whom is also the voice of Garfield the cat. Garfield’s idea of passenger safety is a suction cup on a window.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.