Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Does it really matter?

I read a great article on UPI this morning about the effectiveness of PSAs. It didn't propose anything surprising, to anyone in the business, but it did provide some perspective.

It also took me down memory lane:

Remember that one? I sure do. And so does Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University: "I've never in my life taken illegal drugs but if I would've seen that 'This is your brain on drugs' one more time, I was ready to go and score some cocaine just to spite the commercial. It was so irritatingly preachy and not effective, either. And of course, that isn't your brain when you take drugs, it doesn't fry like an egg."

And this is the problem. Over-dramatizing an issue fails the cause. Especially with an issue like drugs, for which the approaches have been so out of touch with reality as to beg for ridicule.

Like many students of the late '80s, I had this up in my room:

I still have the poster, and I've considered framing it in my office to remind me how wrong social marketing can be. Whether it uses the tactics of shock, or shaming, humour, or even sexuality, a PSA is only as good as its ability to change behaviours.

The UPI article cites research by the Center for Behavioral Research in Cancer at the Cancer Council Victoria in Australia, published in October's Lancet, which found uneven success in social marketing campaigns worldwide.

On the positive side, they found that campaigns against drunk driving and smoking correlated with a reduction in these behaviours — but noted that legislative and punitive tax measures had worked hand-in-hand in the causation.

However, they found campaigns against other high-risk drinking and drug behaviours were largely ineffective. This echoes the findings of the Kellogg School of Management that campaigns such as the LCBO's "The best night of my life" — intended to scare students away from binging — were abject failures.

Somewhere in the middle were health messages that told people to eat better, exercise more, and get screened for cancer, which were described as "moderately effective".

What does this mean for social marketers? Well for one, advertising alone is never enough. Real social change is the result of the kind of social engineering libertarians hate: sin taxes, bans, and other disincentives.

But they also require changes to systems that make positive behaviours more accessible. There's no point in telling people to have safer sex unless they have easy access to condoms. Promoting breastfeeding requires legal protections and accommodations for nursing mothers. Cancer screening only works when people have universal healthcare.

As well, the study implies that small changes are the easiest ones to sell: "A PSA campaign can be very good at making people do stuff that doesn't require that much of a sacrifice, like going and getting a colonoscopy, or a mammogram or waiting to get to your garbage can to throw away your litter," says Professor Thompson.

But does that mean we need to give up on the big issues?

The article quotes Paul Fishlock, the Australian CD behind this campaign:

"I see some of our work in communication as providing unremitting background noise," he said. "I think if we took our foot off the accelerator a bit, if that noise wasn't out there and continually being refreshed, that the tide wouldn't be going out in quite the way that it is."

What do you think?


  1. Depending on the topic, I tend to find PSAs preachy, inadequate or simply "entertaining" (I appreciate them for their cleverness, or creativity). You are right that it is difficult to change people's behaviours, and especially so, if there are not adequate resources to support that person in the change.

    It seems ironic how successful US drug advertising is. "Create" a disease, list generalized symptoms, offer an easy, pill-form solution. Next thing you know people are going to their doctors to find out if they need treatment. Drug companies rake in the dollars. Ironic that people are willing to fix a problem they might not even know they have, yet are unwilling to change their behaviour for a problem (say, drunk driving) that they do have.

  2. Great comment, Bonnie!

    The problem with drugs, both prescription and self-administered, is that they are easy solutions to complex problems. One person's urge to ask their doctor for help is the same one that keeps another from giving up meth: They just want to feel better ASAP. In that way, advertising pharma is like shooting fish in a barrel...

  3. Advertising isn't the goal, it's just one instrument in the proces. Sometimes we don't need ads in the communication chain.
    Don't know how it is in North America but in Europe we don't see drug addiction campaigns often in public spaces or media. We encounter it at the docters office, at schools or in personal talks at school.

    The communication chain is also, like in the profit world, a backoffice or help organisations. But there is more. I learned the most about alcohol addiction from the movie Barfly.