Archive for social marketing

Why advertising doesn’t produce behavior change

Why advertising doesn’t produce behavior change


What does work may surprise you


by Mike Walker • December 12, 2016

If you’ve ever been tasked with convincing someone to eat their veggies, recycle, stop texting behind the wheel, 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?

This line of thinking helps explain why for decades, advertisers have been called upon to help “sell” behavior change.  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?

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 behaviors attributable 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:

  1. provide unambiguous direction about desired behaviors
  2. adequately motivate people
  3. 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 it 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.

Think behavior change expertise might help your project?  Email me at, or contact us via phone or social media.

How do you make people care?

Man not caring.  Who Cares?

How do you make people care?


Can’t convince people to get behind your pet project? Behavioral science suggests you might be going about it the wrong way.


by Mike Walker • December 21, 2015

I received a call from a friend a few weeks ago, a green marketing expert, who relayed a brief story about a new client. A sustainability director at a large national law firm, the new client was thoroughly frustrated by her colleagues’ anemic participation in her office recycling program.

I’ve asked people to participate dozens of times and in dozens of ways. I’ve articulated the benefits, offered rewards, and recognized my (few) model participants. Nothing seems to work! I’ve concluded that they simply don’t care – and really, what can you do when people don’t care?

“So…how do you make people care?” my friend asked.

I hear this question almost daily, whether it’s about recycling, energy efficiency, global warming, water quality, flu shots, saving for retirement, a product, a brand, or the new Star Wars movie.  So it’s a darn good thing I have an answer.

The answer is, in a nutshell…

You can’t. At least, not very often, and not in the near-term. That’s the bad news.

Now for the good news: it doesn’t matter. In other words, whether or not people care is largely immaterial  if you’re in the business of behavior change. As it turns out, getting people to change their behavior is actually a good first step toward making them care.

This assertion will strike many of you as counter-intuitive, if not false. We’d all like to think that our beliefs drive our behavior.  In other words, if we care about something, we act on it, right?

Not necessarily.  In fact, the scientific literature makes a compelling case to the contrary: our beliefs tend to be shaped by reflecting on our own past behavior. In other words, our beliefs are a function of our prior actions, and not the other way around.

So what’s going on here? Faced with a discrepancy between our beliefs and our behavior, humans experience mental stress that psychologists call cognitive dissonance. It’s an uncomfortable psychological state that leads people to change their beliefs – rather than continue feeling, subconsciously, like a phony. We are completely unaware of this phenomenon when it’s happening to us.

If you want to make people care, first help them change their behavior in a way that’s consistent with caring. In one influential study, researchers concluded that the single most effective way to change negative suburban perceptions about riding public transportation did not involve educating them about the benefits of ridership. It was, instead, to provide a free bus or subway pass, thus making it easier for people to try out the behavior. It turns out that doing leads to believing.

When we think of behavior change as an exercise in making humans care, we approach people as if we are trying to win a contentious argument. We inundate them with information and logic, trying to educate, inform, coax, or compel. Faced with disappointing results, we might be tempted to double down, convinced the solution must involve more information, more messages, etc. With our focus misplaced, it’s easy to overlook pragmatic opportunities to facilitate the actual behavior we want. I’m reminded of a favorite quote: “Having lost sight of our objectives, we redoubled our efforts.”

So if you can’t make people care, what should you do to encourage behavior change?

First, be very specific about what behavior you want. And then focus like a laser on facilitating the desired behavior. How do you do that? Seek to understand why people cling to their old behaviors. Identify and then remove barriers to the new behaviors. Manipulate the context, situation, or environment in which decisions are made. Provide adequate motivation and sufficiently clear direction.

As you might imagine, there are an infinite number of ways to do these things; for a few more specific guidelines, see our website, or contact us.

How do you make people care?  Who cares!  Focus on behaviors, not attitudes.

Stop talking about savings!

Stop Talking about Savings!

To drive consumer behaviors, we need to change how we talk about energy efficiency.  6 reasons why:

by Mike Walker • May 20, 2015

Over the past 13 years we’ve helped a lot of clients – including Energy Star, the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, New York State, and numerous electric utilities – promote energy efficiency.   Almost without exception, their first marketing instinct is to tell consumers how much money they can save.  One of our biggest challenges as consultants is to convince them that this approach demands some scrutiny.

Here are six reasons, rooted in behavioral science, that suggest we should talk less stridently about saving money if we want to motivate consumers to reduce energy consumption:

  1. The Loss Aversion Principle. In economics and decision theory, loss aversion refers to the human tendency to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains.   Some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains.  Yet most energy efficient products and programs emphasize how much money we can save.  To be more effective, we should turn this knee-jerk marketing appeal on its head.  Instead, we should stress how much money people are already losing – each and every day, month, or year — until they take action.
  2. On their own, rational appeals rarely drive new behaviors. Telling humans about dollar savings should appeal to their rational selves, and in an ideal world that would be sufficient to spark action.  But the central truth uncovered by research in behavioral economics is that humans don’t always act in their own self-interest.  That’s why marketers need to appeal to both the rational (minds) and the emotional (hearts) of our target audiences.  Talking about savings alone is generally insufficient.
  3. Ever-rising rates hide savings. Utility rates go up over time.  In fact, the average retail price of electricity in the US has risen every single year over the past ten years, despite the fact that our economy imploded and fossil fuel prices fluctuated wildly over the same time period.   Persistent rate increases mask the savings we achieve through our energy efficiency efforts.
  4. Growing demand hides savings, too. We’re plugging in more electronic devices than ever before, but because we do so gradually over time, we don’t realize that our overall “baseline” energy use is increasing. Like rising rates, growing energy consumption conceals the savings from energy efficiency measures.
  5. Negative feedback. This is a function of rising rates and rising demand: when we don’t see the savings we were promised on our utility bill, we get discouraged.  In behavioral science lingo, the feedback we receive is negative (because our actions didn’t result in the anticipated reward.)
  6. The resulting credibility crisis. The negative feedback loop has two pernicious effects.  First, it means we’re less likely to respond to future energy efficiency appeals.  Second, we question the integrity of the source of the appeal, whether that’s our utility company, a product maker, or an energy efficiency advocacy group.  And we’re less likely to trust them next time around.

A classic example:  Sally bought an energy efficient refrigerator last year, but STILL saw her utility bills go up.  Although the real culprit may have been an increase in the cost of electricity, a record-cold winter, or her recently acquired 50-inch plasma TV, she isn’t going to build a spreadsheet to figure all of that out.  Instead, the next time she faces a decision involving energy efficiency, she’ll remember that her fridge was supposed to save her money – money she never saw.

I’m not saying that we should never talk about energy savings.  The most effective behavior change initiatives appeal to both the heart and the mind.  I AM saying that efforts to promote energy efficient behavior need to reflect these realities, rather than ignore them.

How Many Electric Cars Do We Need to Save the Planet?

Electric Vehicles, Sierra Club, New Britain, CTHow Many Electric Cars Do We Need to Save the Planet?

 (And how will we get there?)

by Gina Coplon-Newfield and Mike Walker • February 25, 2015

Compared to conventional cars, plug-in electric vehicles (EVs) dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  This is true even after accounting for the power plant emissions from the electricity to charge them.  That’s why environmental groups have been calling on policymakers, automakers, the media, and the public to support an accelerated switch to plug-in cars, while simultaneously slashing fossil fuel emissions in other ways – like improving mass transit and expanding solar power.

In his state of the union address four years ago, President Obama said, “we can break our dependence on oil and become the first country to have 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.” Today we can more accurately estimate that we’ll have roughly 400,000 EVs on the road by the end of 2015.  We will likely hit the 1 million mark around 2018. Still, not a bad start for a new category of passenger vehicles. EV sales have grown faster out of the gates than hybrid cars first did.

But we can – and should – do much better. Indeed, late last year, EVs made up only about .85 percent of total U.S. auto sales.

Sierra Club, the major environmental group, hired AlterAction – a behavior change consultancy – to produce an in-depth analysis of the U.S. EV marketplace.  One finding really struck us: the US needs 10 million EVs on the road by 2025 to have a shot at avoiding the worst effects of climate change.

Even AlterAction’s sunniest market projection indicates that we’ll have only 4-5 million EVs on the road by 2025 if we continue at the current modest pace of growth.  But we believe an aggressive campaign promoting the most effective EV programs and policies in the right locations could bump that number to 6-8 million EVs by 2025. And with many more NGO, government, and corporate stakeholders making this a priority issue, we could actually reach that 10 million EV mark within the next decade.

How do we get there? As we wrote in our last post in this blog series, some EV programs clearly are already working and should be expanded and replicated. These include high-level EV taskforces put in place by state government leaders, consumer incentives that make EVs cheaper to buy and more convenient to operate – such as cash rebates and carpool lanes access, initiatives that encourage the installation of charging equipment at places of work, and utility programs, such as off-peak charging rates and outreach to their customers.

And where in the country do we focus our attention? Part of the answer is the eight Northeast and West Coast states whose governors have already committed to the Zero Emission Vehicle Action Plan.  That plan promises 3.3 million EVs will hit the roads by 2025. There is A LOT of work to be done in these states to meet these commitments. Recently, a coalition of businesses and NGOs provided some specific recommendations and urged the governors of all the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states to ramp up their EV programs.

We shouldn’t ignore certain other pockets of the country where we can accelerate EV adoption, too. For example, Georgia is among the most popular states for EVs because of its generous $5,000 EV consumer credit, which advocates are currently fighting to defend. A  recent report shows that EV drivers in Georgia are currently saving a combined $10 million a year in fueling costs, and last year these Peach State drivers prevented 22,000 tons of GHG emissions. Additionally, Kansas City Power & Light recently announced it plans to install 1,000 EV charging stations, which could boost EV sales in part of the Midwest.

In California, Pacific Gas & Electric just announced its plans to install 25,000 new EV charging stations, including at two of the most important types of locations for EV chargers: at workplaces and multi-unit dwellings. The air quality is so bad in parts of south and central California that policymakers have set a goal to electrify nearly all passenger vehicles on the road by 2032. Translation: even the Golden State, the EV capital of the U.S., needs to significantly ramp up its ambitious EV programs.

Getting to 10 million EVs in the US by 2025 will be a major challenge, but we know a lot already about what works and where to focus.  In our next post, we’ll lay out a vision for how to get the public charged up and demanding these cars.

Gina Coplon-Newfield is the Sierra Club’s Director of Electric Vehicles Initiative and her blog is at the Huffington Post.  Mike Walker is the founder and CEO of AlterAction.  Emily Norton and Jeff Fisher also contributed to this post.

Photo credit: Gian Metzger of New Britain, CT.

 International Energy Agency, World Energy Outlook 2012, OECD/IEA, 2012.

The Death Penalty: Behavioral Science has Rendered Its Verdict

Death Penalty: Behavioral Science has Rendered Its Verdict

The Death Penalty: Behavioral Science has Rendered Its Verdict

by Mike Walker • May 20, 2014

The death penalty is making headlines again, but I’m going to sidestep the obvious moral and policy debates and look at a much more straightforward question: is capital punishment (as it is administered in the US) likely to deter criminal behavior?

The answer, at least from a behavioral science perspective, is a pretty compelling “not likely.”  Put another way, if a social scientist had to sit down at her desk and design an effective form of criminal deterrence from scratch, she’d almost certainly wad up the death penalty and toss it at the “dumb ideas” bin before the 10 AM coffee break. Read More →