Behavioural ScienceKat Jennings

Inspiring Behavior Change

A good advert can be magical; it can make you smile and warm your heart. But when trying to change behaviours that have serious outcomes - such as smoking, violence or unsafe and careless road use behaviours, there is temptation to take a more somber approach. 

Inspiring Behavior Change

Using shock tactics can feel intuitively like the quickest way to change behaviour. And as behaviour change adverts that evoke strong positive emotions are less common, ads that provoke a negative emotional response are also the ones that are expected, recalled most frequently and appear to be the norm.

In spite of being memorable, these types of ads aren't necessarily the most effective approach for changing people's behaviour.

And some marketers are starting to realise this. 

Like this anti-domestic violence campaign from Italy, that interviews some small boys about their hopes and dreams for the future, introduces a young girl to the discussion and then asks them to harm her - it's a magical ad, stimulating positive emotions and still causing an emotional stir up through surprise, but in a very different way to traditional shock tactics.

Or this rail safety advert from Melbourne, Australia, which was lauded with awards at Cannes and reportedly led to a 30% reduction in injuries on the railways. It also went viral.

So what do we know about designing effective behaviour change comms?

1. Use positive emotions

Negative emotions provoke our natural defence mechanisms in the form of a 'fight or flight' response. So while the ads may be memorable, research has shown that the strong negative emotions they arouse are more likely to lead to people dismissing the content or denying that it applies to them. The effect on behaviour is not as strong as communications that have a positive slant. It is argued that this is because positive emotions play a critical role in helping us expand our horizons and embrace change. You can read more about positive psychology in a previous 2CV blog by Nina Plummer.

2. Include role models and show the desired behaviour

People find it easiest to adopt a behaviour if they are able to see it. It helps in several ways:

  • It helps build self-confidence in our ability to do the behaviour
  • Seeing someone else do the behaviour also helps us simply 'copy' what they're doing - reducing some of the need to think and plan the 'how' of behaviour change
  • It also plays a crucial role in social norming - providing evidence that the behaviour is normal and desirable by demonstrating that other people do it too.

3. Generate surprise rather than shock

Curiosity is a strong force for motivating change. It sparks interest in learning more and a desire for the behaviour being shown. Whilst it might feel that a definitive hard hitting message is likely to have greater impact, sparking curiosity through surprise, and more subtle emotions, will make people more inclined to 'like' and want to explore the desired behaviour.

4. Be careful in design and interpretation of research

In the moment of evaluation fear can be a powerful force and seem like the 'logical' approach to tackling bad behaviours. It can also appear like the best route to creating 'impact' and standing out. It can even appear like it works in research - people feel motivated in the moment of seeing the ad concept, but this doesn't reflect the real life environment where there is more often than not a lag between seeing the ad and acting. Making sure that you include a range of different comms approaches in concept evaluation is important, as well as being aware that there may well be a biased preference for concepts that fit the norm.

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