26 March, 2011

Can people's behaviour be change by advertising?

Melbourne Herald Sun, Friday March 25, 2011

Do you smoke? Drink and drive? Beat your spouse? If you don't, chances are that the reason why is due to advertising.

The past half-century have seen the emergence of "behavioural marketing" as a major media element. That is, advertising that changes our society's behaviour.

There has always been heated debate about whether advertising can be used for social purposes - is it a denial of freedom of expression or political manipulation?

But the evidence is now in: yes it does work, and it's much more effective than threats and punishment, though these can be build into the message.

The campaigns of the modern era can be dated back to 1975's "Life. Be in it", created by Phillip Adams and artist Alex Stitt, who drew the character of Norm. Looking around today we have to wonder how successful that campaign has been - no shortage of Norms and Normas on the streets.

Their follow-up work was "Slip! Slop! Slap!" against skin cancers, in 1981, another phrase we'll never forget - though not always obey.

These days social campaigns are a staple part of our nightly TV diet.

The road toll was a nightmare task, tackled by the Transport Accident Commission through Grey Advertising Melbourne in 1989, with fierce blood and guts determination. The vivid pictures of killed children and maimed passengers shocked the community. The slogan "If you drink, then drive, you're a bloody idiot" was also rudely intrusive.

But the campaigns - Grey have made over 40 commercials, most of them backed by billboards - have been taken as a model around the world. Just last year a web film "Everybody Hurts" won gold at the New York One Show.

If the proof of the pudding is in the eating, TAC gave us a feast. In 1989 the road toll was 776; in 2010 it was 287. It took a lot more than just promotion, but the advertising made some of the legal measures more acceptable.

Melbourne still leads in the field, with The Shannon Company billing itself as the "Behavioural change communications company".

CEO Bill Shannon believes that social communications can effectively steer people in new directions. In his words, "We encourage people to change their lives willingly and for good".

They have tackled difficult problems through unexpected creative approaches: "The most important reason for making the workplace safe is not at work at all." They show not the grisly factory accident, but the family waiting for Dad to come home.

Shannon's took this approach again with the pokie menace: "Think of what you're really gambling with." Not just money but losing your family.

Smoking has been the big success story. The Quit campaign has seen smoker numbers fall from 40 per cent of the population in the 1970s, to 20 per cent today. That's a lot of lives - smoking still kills 15,000 Australians a year.

AIDS is another area where behavioural marketing has played a big part. But Phillip Adams was unimpressed by 1987's "Grim Reaper" commercial which scared everyone but was off-target.

As he recalls writing in our sister paper The Australian, "The only proven mode of transmission was anal intercourse. 99.9 per cent of cases at the time."

The campaign he would have produced had one of the most memorable slogans he has ever written: "Don't come in the bum!" Somehow I missed seeing that one on the billboards.


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