Social marketing has contributed to huge shifts in American behavior. Thanks to social marketing ads, we litter less, smoke less, drink-and-drive less, smoke in others’ faces less, and wear seat belts more.
Most of these gains have been made by making us very uncomfortable. Does anyone remember the ad with the grandpa who is missing his grandson’s first steps because of a tobacco-related death? The Native American shedding a tear about the polluted lake? The cigarette smoke ingredients linked to rat poisoning? The good time Charlie’s mangled car and shattered lives?
We disliked these ads, but we remember them. While most commercial ads are designed to please, comfort and entertain, these social marketing ads made us shift in our seats and conjure up unpleasant images long after the actual viewing. These ads pushed us out of the comfort zone that was preventing us from changing. And thanks in part to these ads, and the policy changes the ads also supported, we did change. Dramatically.
That’s the historical context in which I view this British ad focused on a relatively new societal problem, texting and driving.
As the father of a beautiful eighteen year old who texts, drives and probably occasionally combines the two, I can’t watch this the whole way through.
But I’ll never forget it. This issue just became urgent to me. I won’t go another day without talking to my daughter about this, with this ad as a powerful visual aid. And having viewed this only once, partially, I bet it will pop into my head, and her head, many times when we hear the cell phone and its siren call.
As a social marketing professional, I think this goes too far. On the positive side, it is edgy enough to make it into the social media and news media, giving it considerable free exposure. But it pushes us so hard and so far that most sponsors wouldn’t have the courage to approve it, most stations wouldn’t air it for free (or maybe even at all), and many households wouldn’t let it into their homes more than than a few seconds. Those are problems that severely limit message exposure, so are not to be taken lightly.
But this ad is on the right end of the continuum.
On the other end of the continuum are ads like the seat belt ad being aired locally. It features a teenager with tragically saggy pants that expose his underclothing. Tee hee. It ends by making a parental style joke about needing a belt and drawing a parallel to seat belts. It is cute and entertaining enough from a parents’ perspective, though probably not from the perspective of the teen target market. More importantly, it leaves the viewers completely and utterly in their comfort zones, and leaves no lasting, searing and behavior-changing image in their brain.
I’m sure focus group participants, viewers and insiders tell the sponsor that they like this ad. And because it leaves us in our comfort zone, I’m sure it motivates very little change.
In social marketing, the ultimate question is not whether the ad causes entertainment and enjoyment. The ultimate question is whether the ad causes behavior change. Cheers to these Brits for having the guts to push their viewers in the right general direction.