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.


Tuesday roundup


Looking back over the week that was, and sharing  a collection of stuff that grabbed my attention – usually focused on branding, behaviour change, strategy and creative.

1. Distracted driving

A very smart idea, perfectly executed. I love how it makes the invisible visible. It’s also using the power of social norms to change behaviour. While it’s showing that this behaviour is far more common than people might imagine, it’s also reinforcing the fact that the majority of people aren’t doing these things. The takeaway – if you are someone who texts, talks on the phone etc, you’re part of a dangerous minority.

2. Call a random Swede

A client who is being rewarded for embracing a genius idea.


3. Tackling obesity

When it comes to healthy eating and nutrition, food labelling can play an important role. Unfortunately it’s an area where there’s a distinct lack of clarity, and, let’s be honest, an embracing of confusion. Of course, people are free to eat what they want, but that choice should be an informed one. And labelling can help. So the idea that resurfaced last week of using exercise comparisons to help people translate the impact of calories would be a wonderful initiative. It’s been talked about before – I wrote about it a few years back. Let’s hope we can start employing simplicity and smart design to make it easier for people to make healthy choices.

4. Sports Talk Radio and men

I stumbled upon this fascinating little podcast via the CBC’s Podcast Playlist. The good, but mostly problematic side of the industry.

5. Good design and healthcare

A great little episode via CBC Spark on how we can make healtthcare more human.

6. Remembering Zaha Hadid

Vitra Fire Station – 1994. Zaha Hadid’s first built project

Zaha Hadid was an inspiring and creative force in architecture. I was lucky enough to visit the Vitra Design Campus last year. While there, we did a tour of the Vitra Fire Station that she designed in 1991 – a remarkable building. In this story from The Guardian, architects speak out about her success and the sexism that she confronted.

7. You’re alive. Do you remember?

And from Germany, this wonderful campaign for Hornbach. Refreshing, unique, hilarious, and inspiring. They’ve got to the emotional core of what it means to build and create something yourself. To Do-It-yourself.

8. Words I hate

It’s not enough that we have to endure the word disruption in countless presentations and talks from so called Futurists, trendspotters and the like – as if it’s something new. Now we get to enjoy fancy acronyms.

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.

The people around us

I’ve talked about it here before, but when I first get involved in any behaviour change or health promotion challenge, I like to start by looking up and out. For me, this means looking up beyond the individual and out toward the social or surrounding influences that contribute to our behaviour. Our attitudes aren’t fixed, but move around depending on the context in which we make decisions. As we bump into these other influences, they can reinforce or challenge our behaviour.

When we think beyond the individual, it can open us up to some really interesting and powerful influences on behaviour. Take this effort to tackle domestic violence that launched in India, and has since gone global. Bell Baiao or “Ring the Bell” seeks to bring violence against women to a halt by calling on men and boys to ring a door bell to speak out.

Or this effort from Kenya focused on reducing reckless driving, particularly with local bus drivers. The idea focused not on the driver, but on the passengers – encouraging them to complain when they felt endangered. Results of the trial, called Heckle and Chide are here.

Ultimately these efforts focused on the same end goal of behaviour change. But they re-framed the issue and attacked the challenge from another angle.

It’s easy to think about the ways this might inspire other behaviour change approaches. For example, how might we take on the issue of people talking on their cell phone while driving? Instead of focusing on the individual driver/ talker, we could engage the people around them. For example, it’s fairly easy to tell when chatting with someone on their cell whether they are driving. So messaging could encourage people who “receive” calls from people driving to ask them to pull over, or call back when off the road.

What about other health promotion challenges – including obesity, binge drinking or smoking? How might we look at the surrounding influences and the power of the social to change behaviour?

The lifejacket challenge

With the official start to the holiday season just getting underway, many people will be out enjoying the water for the next few months. And once again, we have the issue of people not wearing lifejackets. Despite results from a 16 year study showing that in Canada alone, boating accounted for almost 3,000 deaths (or about 180 a year), about 40% of Canadians admit to not wearing one when out on the water. Even more troubling is that according to the Canadian Red Cross, about 80% of those involved in boating fatalities were not wearing a flotation device.

So what’s going on here? I’d hazard a guess and suggest that, just like many similar behaviour change issues, many of us are likely aware of the risks in some way, yet for a combination of reasons, we’re not doing something that could keep us safe. Perhaps we’re put off by how uncomfortable they might be on a hot day, or perhaps we think we’re a strong enough swimmer so we won’t need them. Or given that boating is typically a social occasion, it’s more likely the influence of others that has the greatest influence on our behaviour. If everyone around us isn’t doing it, or if we’re told we don’t need to wear one by the boat owner, or if we feel we look dorky in front of others, these are all getting in the way of something that keeps us all safe. Finally, unlike seat belts, we’re not required to wear one – although mandating it through law would not be the end of the issue.

So we have a challenge.

Not surprisingly, the frustration from law enforcement agencies, Canadian Coastguard and the Red Cross is evident year after year. Despite repeatedly telling people about the dangers, many people are choosing not to wear them.

But simply telling people why they should wear them isn’t enough (just look at the 389 comments in this article to see how people react when they feel they are being “told” what to do). We need to shift beyond awareness, and identify more powerful ways to influence behaviour, whether through the surrounding environment, policy, or other forces that focus on going with the flow and nudging people, rather than telling them what to do. Unless we get at the core of human decision-making and better understand the reasons why we do the things we do, nothing much is likely to change.

So to start the ball rolling, here’s 6 quick thought-starters;

  1. Introduce a new law mandating the wearing of lifejackets by children. There’s a growing feeling that Ottawa may mandate the wearing of life jackets out on the water. This would of course help, although it’s likely some Canadians may talk of a “nanny-state”, feeling that the government is going too far in telling them what to do. So if opposition was too strong and this was shot down, a new law could focus on children under 12. For this approach, we can take inspiration from Malcolm Gladwell’s story on how the US – after a decade of seatbelt awareness campaigns and very little success – introduced a law requiring all children to wear a seatbelt. While Americans were also opposed to the Government telling adults what to do, no-one could reasonably oppose a law that protected children. As Gladwell outlines, it was the introduction of this new regulation that finally changed behaviour. Little Johnny, all snug and safe in the backseat, started asking mom and dad why they weren’t wearing their seatbelt. After years of frustration, this social effect trickled through society – and very quickly, wearing seatbelts became normal in the US.
  2. Employ the social norms approach. We all know we can’t help but be influenced by what others do. We follow the herd. So rather than focusing on the 40 per cent who don’t wear their life jackets, let’s celebrate the 60 per cent who do. Communicated in an engaging and creative way, this message could start a slow cultural shift where the wearing of lifejackets becomes the norm. In fact, this should be a larger focus in all public communication around the issue. As with efforts to get young people to vote, the last thing you want to do is talk about how many people aren’t voting – this just reinforces the fact that not doing it is normal. The only exception is with the reporting of actual injuries or deaths. News bulletins should continue to conclude these reports with an update on whether the person was wearing a lifejacket or not (just as we do with the reporting of road fatalities and the wearing of seatbelts).
  3. Normalize lifejackets by linking them to the Canadian identity. Just as the lakes and rivers are an important part of the Canadian identity, why not position the life jacket as a part of this rugged outdoor heritage, rather than something separate. Campaigns launched just prior to Canada Day could link to this strong sense of independence and national pride – and powerful and nostalgic imagery could feature the Canadian Navy, Coastguard or historic footage of Canadians out on the water wearing lifejackets. This makes the actual moment of wearing a lifejacket more magical – which is especially important since we struggle to think long-term about the benefits.
  4. Focus on boat owners. It’s likely that boat owners have the ability to influence what happens on a boat more than anyone else. So targeted messaging could focus on owners as the key influencers of behaviour.
  5. Prime the market. Each year, conduct surveys prior to the launch of any safety campaigns. While this helps benchmark overall key behavioural triggers (e.g. what percentage of Canadians do you think wear life jackets?), these surveys would also act as a primer with the target audience. Studies have shown the influence surveys can have on our decision-making process.
  6. Reinforce positive behaviour and encourage social norms with fun incentives. Just like the successful Speed Camera Lottery, launch a program that offers up a chance to win a percentage of boating fines collected through the summer. Any groups out on the water all wearing life jackets would have a chance to win – just by being spotted by the Canadian Coast Guard or other law enforcement agencies.

This is really just the tip of the iceberg, and clearly a combination of ideas, strategies and community participation is needed. What do you think?  I’d love to hear your ideas? How can we use our understanding of human behaviour to change what we do.