How to make a behaviour changing campaign

A no smoking sign

Figure 1: We've shifted from promoting to discouraging this behaviour, but what is the best way?

The indecent proposal of social engagement

Smoking gives you cancer. Alcohol gives you cirrhosis. Burgers make you fat. On paper, these seem quite influential. A+B=Death. But the truth is that most behaviour changing campaigns fall flat on their face. But why? Why is the message often thrown away with the packet? Or rather; “Why is no-one paying attention to the message in my really important life saving website campaign”. The answer is often because “It will never happen to me”. So what is the trick to making sure people don’t go: “That will never happen to me”, or rather; “FOR GOODNESS SAKE, JUST LET ME LIVE!” The answer is related to self efficacy.

Self efficacy

Self efficacy is the concept related to self belief, first noted by Bandura (Read the article; Perceived self-efficacy in the exercise of control over aids infection). It’s related to how much people believe they can control their own motivation and behaviour when they are in a social environment. So for example, imagine you are trying to reduce the amount of caffeine you drink throughout the day. You know you have a client meeting later in the day and you are starting to flag. Slowly becoming more tired you need strong reasons to avoid making yourself more coffee. As the day continues you begin to feel stressed, concerned that you won’t be able to perform in the meeting. But you’re overriding belief that you CAN prevail and your desire to not drink any caffeine overrules any cravings. A certain number of factors influenced this; the amount of effort it took you to avoid caffeine, how long you wish to persevere, the negative and positive thought patterns you considered, and lastly the amount of stress you were under.

Follow the grain of change

So how do you change the behaviour of the masses through a website? Well, through social engagement! It’s not just how well you formulate or present your argument. It’s not just about design. It’s about encouraging behaviour of the masses to follow the grain of change. And it starts before a wireframe, before an IA development or even a basic sketch. It starts with the campaign concept. The idea. If we think more globally, like for example the HIV/AIDs epidemic, our own perception, or rather our own ability to predict the efficacy factors determines the effectiveness of a health campaign! So, in order for people to become more wary of HIV/AIDs and its effects, they have to be more ‘susceptible’ to the traits of efficacy; ultimately, this determines the influence that a behaviour changing website has. People will feel like they wish to persevere and avoid a negative emotion if they are given the tools and knowledge about the reasons why they should not perform a behaviour. The reasons that behaviour changing campaigns often fail is because of their tactics and subject matter. They go in too hard, they shout, they expect too much, they demand the world!

Nobody can give the world

The world? Nobody can give the world. The end product or an aim to discourage your behaviour can’t be unrealistic; if it’s unrealistic then it’s not tangible. Telling people to stop smoking because it MAY cause cancer is the same as telling people: you should be really careful about driving too fast on the M25 because you MAY hit a puddle and you MAY crash. Which may happen. But what is more likely to happen? Well, people drive along the M25 too fast and they don’t hit a puddle and crash more often than they do! The reason that recent anti smoking adverts are so powerful is not because the child telling their parent will die is enough to prevent them smoking. But the IDEA that your child believes you are going to die is enough. The belief that your child associates your behaviour with your death is incredibly powerful. The amount of people influenced by the ‘smoking kills’ image of decaying lungs is relatively low. People on the whole believe that they are above average. We see ourselves as fitter and healthier than the man on television with cancer. That is never going to be our lungs because we have stronger immune systems and this is a cognitive bias known as the 'illusionary superiority effect'. The most powerful argument has a tangible end result. “If I smoke my child will think I am going to die”. The advert is disarming. Whilst initially it appears to target you, it’s the indirect implications of the campaign and the empathetic feelings that are the game changers. But more importantly it’s something anyone can see themselves doing. In reality, a game changing campaign acknowledges how people interpret the consequences of behaviour. The way to inhibit behaviour is to avoid pushing a certain type of consequence; a socially unacceptable behaviour.  

Two storm trooper lego figurines climb into a glass of whisky

Figure 2: Some behaviours are truly unacceptable


That’s unacceptable behaviour

Something that is socially unacceptable is a breach of an established social norm. It’s completely intolerable and results in the most undesirable consequence; rejection from your social group. Hogg and Reid have written an interesting article about this called; Social identity, self-categorization, and the communication of group norms. Because of this threat of rejection, people do not believe or accept that this is (normally) within their capabilities. If you can’t accept that it’s a consequence, you don’t accept the behaviour that could get you there is negative! So for example, you go out for a few drinks and before you know it, you’ve punched the bouncer in the face, thrown your kebab at the store owner and now you are riding in the back of a transit on your way to jail (socially unacceptable). Actually, this is unlikely to discourage you from drinking. Why? In your current state right now (sobriety), it looks impossible for that to be you. Every second that leads up to this moment, you fail to acknowledge that this could be a consequence. There is so often the belief that we are always in control as we are always ‘above average’. The prospect of being arrested is terrifying, so you refuse to acknowledge it. Well, you also refuse to acknowledge that it’s a potential consequence of drinking. Some campaigns are already acknowledging this. If we look at the most recent rape advert for example, a man stares and screams at another version of himself, trying desperately to make himself stop! The advert grabs you and shakes you. It's powerful because it makes you feel powerless. Watching the advert makes you acknowledge that sometimes you enter an unfamiliar and unpredictable state. It suggests that anyone could be the person standing at the glass. It aims to give you a new tool, to help you avoid a behaviour; perspective.

Do not incite too much fear

Although, heed this; a successful campaign cannot incite too much fear. Too much fear leads to rejection. A campaign relies on you having a positive self efficacy and an appreciation for socially undesirable consequences of behaviour. A successful campaign ensures that the socially undesirable factors of behaviour are always acknowledged by the target audience. Shouting unacceptable behaviours at users will result in them ignoring your message. People have to be subtly directed to associate undesirable behaviours with a consequence. In a stressful situation where they are exposed to a situation requiring a large amount of concentration, requiring high perseverance, and many negative thought patterns, they need to have ready the reasons that will help them avoid a behaviour. Because they represent the behaviours that are undesirable.

That’s undesirable behaviour

In order to change behaviour, the consequences you advertise through a campaign not only have to be tangible and something you can see yourself doing, but also give a negative social impression of you. So imagine the scene; you’re going out for a few drinks. You know for a fact that somebody you share an attraction with is going to be there. The two of you have met a few times before and there is a high chance that something will happen. As a result you decide to refuse that last drink because you know there is the possibility that you may be; sick, unable to say no to more alcohol, unable to refuse food, unable to hold a conversation or be unable to perform sexually. You are immediately aware of the amount you are drinking whilst hoping to avoid an inevitable embarrassing situation. Or rather a socially undesirable behaviour. Anyone can potentially see themselves in this situation and it’s powerful because the reasons not to drink are delivered by a seemingly neutral source. They are not aggressive, nor are they prescriptive; they appear to be ‘friendly’, indirectly influencing behaviour. Whilst campaigns will not provide an immediate change it is important to start small. Eventually the target audience will be informed enough by the various socially undesirable consequences to reduce the amount they conduct behaviour. The most recent example of this in the UK is the recent ban on displaying cigarettes. Hiding the cigarettes suggests that it's a shameful act to smoke. Requesting cigarettes when they are hidden from view increases feelings of embarrassment and ultimately reduces the amount people start smoking. This move alone is not enough to prevent people smoking; it is another 'tool' and move towards the behaviour appearing socially undesirable. It is an element of a gradual trend, instigated after years of highlighting the reasons not to smoke; slowly giving people the tools and reasons not to smoke. Not convinced? There was a time when it would have been OK to smoke at a restaurant. But now this is considered socially undesirable. In fact, for many it's now socially unacceptable. The change has been gradual but smaller changes, and the tools offered in response to this are changing how we view the behaviour.

A strong campaign

Sometimes to achieve an explicit response you have to use an implicit tactic. A strong campaign provides its target audience with the tools to change behaviour; it does not seek to initially equip them with the motivation. In order to provide people with the belief that they can make a change, and the perception of control they have to be provided with definite consequences that relate to self efficacy. Your tools for change are not death, imprisonment and grievous bodily harm. They are the negative social connotations of weight gain, vomiting invoking empathy and embarrassment; fighting peoples illusion of superiority.  

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