Alex Oliver writes:

Looking for better sex? Interested in ways to save money and lose weight? Want to be a better parent and live a long and happy life?

If these questions got your attention, they certainly grabbed mine at the recent Global Social Marketing Conference held in sunny Dublin last week, where Josh Hunt and I spent an intense couple of days presenting our recent behavioural insight work, chatting to academics and practitioners from across the globe, and attending seminars on the latest thinking in social marketing theory.

The conference covered a range of social policy challenges from contraception in African sex workers to breast feeding amongst Texan minority ethnic groups, to reducing extreme racist behaviour in deprived inner city London councils, and a whole bunch of interesting subjects in between.  But in amongst the many theoretical debates, one basic but hitherto understated insight was repeatedly reinforced for me.  That traditional social marketing theory has relied far too heavily on fear as the lever to challenge behaviour, rather than using pleasure or happiness as a motivator to drive change.

Academic research does show that fear can be a highly effective lever in motivating behaviour change. When it comes to men and drink driving, for example, the more that risk of death is highlighted, and the more grisly the description of death, the more likely the subjects are to report a change in attitudes.  And it’s not difficult to think of any number of government campaigns across the globe that have applied the same principle – the famous AIDS campaign of the 1980s, the motorcycle campaign (which I still can’t watch – my husband being the owner of a BMW 850R), and the ‘Heroin Screws You Up’ campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s. (The posters for these became fashion statements, opening up the idea of ‘heroin chic’.)

But it’s possible that over-exposure to these many frightening messages over time has de-sensitised us, or worse, made us angry and caused us to reject the moralising messenger? This was the compelling case argued at the conference by Professor Nadine Henley from Edith Cowan University Western Australia.

She proposed an alternative: that social marketers should make their subjects the heroes of the campaigns rather than the villains or victims.  So, instead of scaring people with the consequences of diabetes and heart disease, we might celebrate weight loss through game shows like The Biggest Loser. Or we accept that teenagers will have sex and tell them what types of contraception fit best with their lifestyle, however debauched it may be.

In practice, good social marketing campaigns will always use a range of levers and messages. But whether supported by academic research or not, intuitively it makes sense that we need to feel good about ourselves and the world we live in – a lesson that commercial marketers have certainly learnt, but governments perhaps need to think a bit more about.

One thought on “From fear to pleasure

  1. Vanessa Morrison says:

    Thanks for this great article – this insight is being used currently in Australia by the anti smoking campaign – they’ve gone from ads telling smokers about the damage they are doing (very graphically) to ads telling them every cigarette they don’t smoke is doing them good/repairing the body.

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