Ads won’t change harmful or unhealthy human behaviors
Here’s why — and what you should do
by Mike Walker • November 23, 2016
The business of changing human behavior for the better is challenging, and that’s an understatement. If you’ve ever been tasked with convincing someone to eat their veggies, recycle, stop texting behind the wheel, use a new software program, or simply follow a standard procedure at work, you know how hard it can be. So who can blame us for wanting to call on the magicians of Madison Avenue? After all, if commercial advertisers can persuade us to buy bottled water when our tap water is just as healthy and free, surely they can help us adopt personally and socially beneficial behaviors?
This line of thinking helps explain why for decades, advertisers have been called upon to help “sell” behavior change. We’ve seen ad campaigns pushing everything from saving for retirement to saving energy. And why not? Good advertisers are, almost by definition, seductive, clever, slick, and confident. We WANT to believe they have all the answers. (Bottled water!)
It’s more complicated
I would never argue that advertising simply doesn’t work. It just turns out that driving new behaviors is far more complicated than influencing brand preferences. So while a well-executed advertising campaign might persuade a small percentage of people to reach for a new flavor of toothpaste, it won’t be able to convince people to brush their teeth in the first place: at least not without considerable help from other concurrent interventions.
In fact, the vast majority of public service advertising campaigns have NOT moved the needle on behavior. In a 2008 study, participants who were primed with anti-drug PSAs were more curious about using drugs than those that hadn’t seen the PSAs. The study authors found that because anti-drug ads made the viewer think more about drugs, it could also lead them to believe drug use is more prevalent than it really is. (Anyone who’s familiar with “social norming” knows this outcome could be counterproductive, if not downright dangerous.)
Or consider seat belts. Seat belt use in the United States barely budged in the 70s and 80s, despite the best efforts of top advertisers like Leo Burnett. It wasn’t until states began passing mandatory seat belt laws that behavior began to change. Confession: although I’ve run numerous national PSA campaigns, I have never seen a randomized controlled trial that documented changes in habits or behaviors attributable to exposure to an ad campaign. If you’re aware of one, please let me know.
Ad campaigns often divert resources from more powerful interventions
I’m NOT suggesting that advertising has no role to play in encouraging healthier or more socially beneficial behaviors. Advertising can be very effective at raising general awareness around an issue, which is critically important in the early stages of behavior change. My concern is that advertising campaigns often become the singular focus of a behavior change effort, diverting resources from other types of interventions that can have far greater impact.
This is particularly true of campaigns where the vast majority of Americans already know what the “right” behavior is. They KNOW they should lose weight, get that flu shot, install a programmable thermostat, etc., and they WANT to do these things. The problem isn’t awareness.
Even the ways in which we measure advertising effectiveness – impressions, click-through rates, retention, recall – represent tacit acknowledgement that the link between ads and target behavior is tenuous. The more we focus on these metrics, the more we lose sight of our mission to move the needle on human behavior.
In their excellent book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Health argue persuasively that successful behavior change interventions work because they do three things effectively:
- provide unambiguous direction about desired behaviors
- adequately motivate people
- alter the environment or context in which people decide what they should do.
(You can read more about these 3 conditions on our website.) Advertising can be very effective at addressing the first condition. For example, ads can clearly describe the desired outcome — and they can translate them into very specific, easy to comprehend behaviors. (Think, “call this number.”) Ads can be somewhat effective at the second condition, at least in the short term. If you’ve ever felt the pull of an emotion after seeing a TV ad, you understand that ads can motivate. (Remember Sarah McLachlan’s gut-wrenching SPCA commercial? It raised $30 million for the animal cruelty prevention charity.)
Where the leverage is — and isn’t
It’s the third condition that advertising can’t do much about. Which is unfortunate, because of the three, altering the environment offers the most leverage. It’s where most behavior change initiatives should spend most of their time, energy, and resources. Why? Peoples’ decisions do not take place in a vacuum: the environment influences behavior far more than most people realize.
In behavioral economics, “choice architecture” refers to the deliberate design of environments in which people make choices—say, a school cafeteria—and to the reality that there’s no such thing as a neutral design. Whether the cafeteria puts apples or Fritos at the front of the line, the placement will affect which snack is more popular. A large body of research has shown this to be true.
The most powerful way to influence behavior is to change something in the environment to tip the balance in favor of the desired action. Can you make the behavior easier? Would prompts, checklists, or triggers help? In our experience, successful behavior change initiatives focus relentlessly on removing barriers to—and facilitating—desired behaviors. And these are things advertisers can’t do for you.