Archive for sustainability

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.

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

behavior change: 10 common mistakes to avoid

The 10 Biggest Mistakes Behavior Change Programs Make

by Mike Walker • August 5, 2015

At some point in our careers, we all find ourselves face-to-face with a behavior change challenge. For example, we might be tasked with convincing employees to use a new software application, or customers to try a re-designed product, or neighbors to embrace a new community initiative. Regardless, here are ten traps to avoid, based on our nearly 14 years of experience and a body of research by economists and scientists such as Richard Thaler and BJ Fogg.

1. Focusing on changing people’s minds instead of facilitating the desired behaviors.

One of the many counter-intuitive findings of social science research is that attitudes don’t necessarily drive people’s behavior. In fact, it’s usually the other way around: people’s values and attitudes tend to flow from their behaviors. Forget about changing minds. What matters is action, so focus your efforts on facilitating the desired action!

2. Assuming people will change behavior when presented with compelling facts.

If only! The field of behavioral economics has demonstrated that we humans are not always logical, rational, or driven by coherent internal motivations. (Example: I know the importance of getting roughly 30 minutes of vigorous exercise every day – yet here I sit!) A host of factors conspire to influence people’s actions, and facts are just one of them.

3. Believing that good communication is the most important factor in any behavior change program.

Communication always gets the blame when behavior fails to change – most of the time, unfairly. Why? Because communication is the principle focus of most change campaigns – after all, it’s what marketers and advertisers are best at doing. But good communication is just a prerequisite for behavior change. It’s necessary, but typically insufficient. (Although every challenge is unique, we’ve identified 3 factors that characterize successful behavior change solutions.)

4. Going first for big change instead of starting with small, easy successes.

James Collins and Jerry Porras famously encouraged companies to come up with “big, hairy, audacious goals” in their 1994 book, Built to Last. All well and good, but leaders need to break down big changes into bite-sized chunks for people. Start with baby steps: specific actions that people can sustain over time. Early successes lay a foundation for long-term successes.

5. Underestimating the power of environment to shape behavior.

Small changes to the context in which decisions are made can greatly influence human behavior. Redesign the environment so it’s conducive to the new behavior. Remember: when you present choices to people, there is no such thing as a neutral presentation!

6. Trying to avoid old behaviors instead of creating new ones.

It’s really hard to simply stop a negative habit, so replace it with a positive one instead. It’s far more effective than trying to go “cold turkey.”

7. Blaming failure on lack of motivation.

Willpower is a finite resource: sooner or later it will be depleted. Everyone’s motivation ebbs and flows; what people need more than willpower is easier behaviors. Make the desired behavior the “path of least resistance.”

8. Ignoring the importance of triggers.

No behavior happens without a trigger. We’re hungry? We eat. The light turns green? We step on the gas. Our smartphone chirps? We glance at the display. Established triggers cue automatic behaviors, so we must identify triggers and pair them with new behaviors. In some cases you can eliminate a trigger (e.g., turn off smartphone notifications), or find a preceding trigger and pair it with a new behavior that preempts the old.

9. Talking to people about abstract goals instead of concrete behaviors.

The problem with an abstract goal is that there is no specific call to action. For restaurant workers, “conserve water” is abstract. “Wait to run the dishwasher until it is completely full of dirty dishes” is concrete. It’s important to translate goals into simple, actionable steps.

10. Seeking to change forever, instead of for a defined period of time.

Imagine asking co-workers to recycle all of their waste paper from henceforth and in perpetuity. Now imagine asking them to recycle all of their waste paper just for this week. A fixed period works better than “forever” when it comes to building new habits. Because if it sounds doable, people might just give it a try.

Have you encountered other mistakes when it comes to behavior change initiatives? Let me know!