How Govt uses negative ads for positive gains

The Government is the only advertiser in the UK that aims to get people to stop, as well as to start or continue, doing something.

'fatty cigarette'...negative associations in British Heart Foundation ad
'fatty cigarette'...negative associations in British Heart Foundation ad

Every other media pound in Britain is spent on motivating people to do something, whether drinking Stella Artois or taking out health insurance with Bupa.

A lot of government money is also spent on motivating people, be it to join the Army, to learn to read or to pay for a TV licence.

The exceptional ability of advertising to motivate people to do these exact things (and many more besides) is detailed in a wealth of IPA cases.

The points discussed here are special because they aim to de-motivate people from doing things - be that smoking, drink-driving or using illegal minicabs at the end of the night.

What's in it for me?

For people who were motivated by one of the campaigns above, there was clearly something in it for them.

The Stella Artois campaign conjures up the provenance of Provence to reassure the drinker that they have made a discriminating choice, while the Army recruitment work motivates people to join by explaining that its training opportunities equip people for careers beyond the army.

In stark contrast, public health and safety campaigns have to encourage people to change their behaviour when often there doesn't appear to be much "in it" for them - nothing immediate or concrete that is, because the benefit is somewhat invisible.

It is the avoidance of harm, not even actual harm, but ?potential harm. So even when people do stop their risky behaviour, they don't actively experience the benefit.

They'll never know if they would have got cancer from smoking, got raped had they taken that minicab or caused an accident if they had driven under the influence of alcohol.

Motivational versus De-motivational ads

What makes the de-motivational ask even tougher is that not only is the benefit "invisible", but in many cases so is the danger.

People often don't believe the behaviour is risky or, alternatively, don't think the danger will befall them. We all know of relatives who have lived to 100 and smoked several packs of cigarettes every day of their life, or friends who regularly have unprotected sex and never even get a cold. The danger isn't seen to be a clear or present one.

Another challenge is that often what constitutes risky behaviour in the clear light of day feels less so when people are in a less rational state - after a few drinks at the end of a night out or in the heat of a passionate moment.

So, for all sorts of reasons, getting people to stop doing something that is potentially harmful to them and/or others is a big ask.

There are many lessons from conventional - or what can be termed motivational - advertising that can be applied to de-motivational advertising.

However, there are some general challenges and learnings that are unique to de-motivational communications. There are no "one-size-fits-all" answers and many campaigns play off one or two of these "lessons", which are simply observations on what seems to have worked.

How to get people to listen to a ‘don't do' message (without it being counter-productive)

Luckily, we are not automatons. Just because we are asked not to do something, it doesn't mean we won't.

In many cases, the very notion of being told not to do something can make them switch off. Or it can actually make them want to do it more.

That is what we call the paradox of "keeping off the grass".

Any communication that aims to stop people doing something needs to take into account the fact that unless it's tonally right, it could fall at the first hurdle and be screened or rejected.

Condemn the action - not the audience

Child psychologists advise that when disciplining children it is important for their self-esteem and learning that you condemn the behaviour rather than the child.

Smoking and smokers are a relevant parallel here. As intolerance grows, smokers expect to be treated as outcasts and bombarded by threats and statistics.

Pick your moment

Media choices are crucial in ensuring people are in the right frame of mind to listen and, ideally, act. At its simplest, just as a zoo wouldn't put a "Please don't feed the animals" sign on its outside gates, there will be places that are particularly relevant for "don't do" messages.

When Transport for London ran a campaign on the dangers of using illegal minicabs, it developed what was dubbed a "point of prey" media strategy in environments close to the decision-making point - when women were most likely to make irrational choices.

It was designed to offer a practical solution to the problem, since it gave information on safer ways of getting home.

Make the invincible feel vulnerable

"We see things they'll never see, you and I are gonna live forever."

So sang Oasis on their album Definitely Maybe. It's a truth that when it comes to public health and safety campaigns, one of the biggest challenges is that people feel immune to risks.

Behavioural theory and, indeed, common sense tells us that, for people to change their behaviour, they must first and foremost feel susceptible to threat.

Make the moment of invincibility the moment of vulnerability

We have all heard of Pavlov's dog, but may be less familiar with the theory of conditioned response. At its simplest, Pavlov's dogs would salivate on hearing a bell because Pavlov had rung it every time they ate.

By the end of the experiment, the association was so strong the dogs would salivate when they heard the bell - even if food wasn't present.

There are a number of campaigns that seem to work in a similar way because they associate a very physical sense of danger and revulsion with the behaviour they are trying to stop.

So the British Heart Foundation's "fatty cigarette" ad set out to be anti-cigarette, rather than anti-smoker.

The campaign inextricably links cigarettes with the damage they cause to arteries, using the similarity in shape between the two to graphically portray the build-up of fatty deposits caused by smoking.

Make people feel responsible for the vulnerability of others

When the Department of the Environment Northern Ireland was developing a campaign to combat drink-driving, it identified that its target audience, namely young men, were most prone to the invincibility syndrome.

In the main, they were responsible and didn't plan to drink and drive, but on occasions did so when faced with the choice of ending their fun or not.

Research showed that a key trigger for them was the death of a child. It was a much greater prompt to modify their behaviour and interrupt their invincibility syndrome than the suggestion that they could kill themselves, partly because of the guilt and partly because of the personal shame heaped upon them by others.

Advertising is only the tip of the iceberg in bringing about behaviour change. Massive progress has already been made.

However, I suspect we have much to learn from the likes of Alcoholics Anonymous in harnessing the strength of others who are trying to change the same behaviour.

We have seen a shift from information providers to service providers, and the next step may well be providing the forums and tools to enable people to help, support and mentor each other.

Alison Hoad is the vice-chairman at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R.

This is an extract taken from Hoad's chapter in How Public Service Advertising Works, by COI and the IPA. The book is published by the World Advertising Research Centre, priced £32.