Over my years in advertising, I’ve probably sat through and listened online to hundreds of focus groups. And almost without fail, young people will say the same thing when asked about what will make them change their behaviour.
“you’ve got to shock us. Show us the blood and guts. That’s the only way we’ll notice”
So many marketers and a surprising number of agencies take that at face value, spending millions on campaigns around the world using fear and scare tactics to make an impact.
The only problem – it doesn’t work.
For one, we’re horrible at analyzing our own behaviour. We’re not always aware of what impacts our decision making, or what is actually influencing what we do. So simply asking people isn’t going to get at the real issue.
As well, numerous proper studies have shown that using fear in behaviour change and health promotion doesn’t drive long-term change. It makes an immediate impact, but because it’s not addressing deeper triggers or insights, it fades quickly. Plus, it makes it easy for people to post-rationalize themselves out of the message (“that’s not me”). Many simply reject the message as it’s the easy way to manage their cognitive dissonance.
The saying goes that “we’re not saving lives – it’s just advertising”. The shame here though is that with health promotion, we kind of are (albeit as one small part). So with that goes a sense of responsibility and – one would hope – an increased focus on using genuine human insight, psychology and behaviour change theory. And it starts by asking deeper questions, and getting at the real triggers and influences of people’s behaviour.