Can mass marketing make individuals kick bad habits?

Natalie Weller-Cliff, group account director for social marketing at 23red, discusses the role of social marketing in changing behaviour.

Natalie Weller Cliff

Every behaviour has a positive intent – even bad behaviour. Or so believe practitioners of Neuro Linguistic Programming, the science behind the practices of top performance coaches.

Acting as if everything we do has a personal reward helps us understand why people insist on certain bad behaviours. One to one interventions, such as stop smoking clinics, are successful in breaking bad habits. But can mass marketing achieve the same results?

Bad habits can endanger others (drunk driving), endanger yourself (over-eating) or make life harder than it needs to be (doing your tax return at the last minute). Few individuals would actively condone these behaviours, so why are they prevalent?

Last year, over 100,000 people filed their tax return on the deadline day. Some thought they were being canny, a few forgot, and the majority meant to do it sooner but didn’t. A messy desk, crumpled receipts in a carrier bag and no discernible filing system all kicked their good intentions into touch. So what happened?

To answer, we need to understand which values drive an individual’s bad behaviour. What might the habitually disorganised think of someone with perfect admin? Nothing better to do? A worrier…? Whereas someone with a messy desk is assumed to be a busy, creative type. So they may decide, consciously or not, that by not doing their tax return, they’re saying they have better things to do.

To break the habit, the pain of not changing must be greater than the current reward. If you cannot face another stressful last minute submission, you might take up the Revenue on its free training offer or invest in a Dummies Guide to Sorting Your Life Out. If you realise poor admin could cost you your business, you’ll sort your filing out. When the personal drawbacks of not changing outweigh the personal benefits, we act.

So if change is idiosyncratic, how can mass communication influence it? Much of what we do – and why we do it – is unconscious, and therefore unquestioned. Marketing’s role lies in heightening awareness of the pain of not changing in order to challenge individuals’ perception of the reward – the thing they value more than change.

The Change4Life campaign challenges parents to consider the future pain of their inactive, over-fed kids. Launch advertising highlighted the risk of cancer, heart disease and type II diabetes. The campaign aims to raise awareness – en masse – of the consequences of adult obesity and made the desire for ‘a quiet life’, free of kids demanding sweets, a poor trade off for unhealthy children.

‘You wouldn’t start a night like this’ (Home Office) aims to make young people question their self-perception of drunkenness. Far from good times, their sober selves witness the reality of vomit smeared faces, torn clothing and the stupidity of getting into a total stranger’s car. Embarrassment replaces the perceived benefit of getting drunk.

Rather than pushing benefits, social marketers should raise questions about what people value as well as making them question whether they have their priorities right. We know we shouldn’t get legless, eat too many biscuits and leave our receipts lying around. What we don’t yet know is why we do these things and what will make us want to stop. It’s questioning that challenges our cosy, unconsidered realities and makes us think our actions through. Out loud, our inner justifications seem silly and self destructive. And saying things out loud is something mass communications does very well.

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