Stop scaring people into change

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.

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Top #8 Sunday Reads – #12

Sharing a few bits and pieces from the last week;

1. Great write-up on the so called Ministry of Nudges in the UK via the New York times

At the core of nudging is the belief that people do not always act in their own self-interest. We can be undone by anxiety and swayed by our desire to fit in. We have biases and habits, and we can be lazy: Faced with a choice, we are more likely than not to go with a default option, be that a mobile ringtone or a pension plan.

2. Another reminder via the Economist of the power of emotion in advertising – in part inspired by the thinking of Daniel Kahneman, a champion psychologist.

3. Here’s an elegant way to define the power of behavioural economics – by defining what it’s not – via Ideas42

4. A beautiful film that communicates the message of sustainability – Work Wear, by Patagonia

5. Great series & partnership between W+K and D&AD. Called I wish I’d done that, it features some the best in advertising and design talking about work they wish they’d done. In this example from W+K, founder Dan Wieden shares a wonderful idea focused on shifting cultural attitudes toward climate change.

6. A beautiful and respectful film to help build awareness for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – “Because who is perfect?”. Created for Pro Infirmis, an organization for the disabled, the idea is original and confronting yet thought provoking.

7. In this lovely idea by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, “touch tours” are being offered for visitors who are blind and visually-impaired.

8. A perhaps my favourite video of the past few weeks. The folks at RSA created a charming and inspiring animation of a talk by Brené Brown in which she describes the difference between empathy and sympathy. Via the always brilliant Brain Pickings

Apple and social norms

Apple provides a simple lesson in the power of social proof. Coming under increasing competition from competitors like Android, they are celebrating a core strength of their brand. Here they remind us that “every day, more photos are taken with the iPhone then any other camera”. Not just phones, but any other camera. That simple statement grounded in fact is incredibly persuasive. We’re influenced by what we think everyone else is doing – so if you already have an iPhone, you feel rewarded. And if you don’t, you can’t help but wonder why. It’s human nature to want to do what everyone else is doing (even though we don’t like to admit it).

Health promoters and social marketers could do well to consider more opportunities to leverage the power of social norms in their communication strategies. For example, if only more people (e.g. students) knew that binge drinking was not the norm at their university – imagine the good that could come from it.