It’s that time of year again.
New Year’s resolution time. (OK, maybe it’s a bit late now. But that’s sort of the point.)
Most people will often make them with the best intentions – to do more exercise, to eat more healthily, to cut down on drinking, or simply become a better person.
But as mid-February approaches, trainers remain at the door, that takeaway is sitting in the bin as well as that empty bottle of wine. And well, what was wrong with the old me anyway?
As many psychologists will tell you, New Year resolutions often fail because they set unrealistic expectations. There either isn’t an actionable plan or the change in behaviour is too abrupt. For example, rather than stopping drinking altogether, it might be more helpful to cut down your drinking so you only decide to drink on the weekend.
Or resolutions fail because they are too abstract. Becoming a better person is all well and good, but what does that actually mean? How do you know when you have become a better person? Some specificity is helpful in these matters. So, it might mean working on elements of your character, for example, making sure you are polite amongst others.
New Year resolutions are all about personal behaviour change, but in advertising we increasingly seem to want to do this on a grand scale. We seem no longer interested in selling products or stuff, but are increasingly looking to change people’s behaviour, particularly when it comes to the hot issues of the day like the environment, diversity and inclusion and social change.
But are we falling into exactly the same pitfalls as when people set their own new year resolutions? Creating a set of unrealistic ambitions which will never be met.
Take the climate. You increasingly hear of the ‘CLIMATE EMERGENCY’ and that ‘action must be taken NOW’. But apart from being popularised as catchy marketing slogans, what do they actually achieve?
In truth, they are only ever likely to induce a state of fear, or worse, have you running for the nearest bottle of whiskey (thereby also breaking your own personal New Year resolution.) Even at the more positive side of climate marketing, presenting some utopian future of net zero, it is never quite clear how we intend to get there.
Or take the push for greater diversity. Again, they are very lofty aims. That we need to build the most diverse workforce ever or diversity is a good thing. But again the roadmap for getting there is all a bit vague. Moreover, it often means all important nuance often gets left out of the debate. What do we mean about diversity? Who are we really trying to benefit?
However, part of the wider trouble behind all of this goes back to this belief that advertising needs to leave selling and must now try to convince people into believing certain set of beliefs. This is a false split. Behaviour change has always been an essential part of what we do, not some new-fangled concept to convince millennials there is some worth in their jobs.
Whether you are trying to sell someone a toaster or convince someone of the environmental benefits of eating less meat, you are still fundamentally trying to change somebody’s behaviour. Moreover, behaviour change campaigns haven’t recently appeared in advertising like a new breed of species, linked to tackling the climate or increasing diversity.
We have always done them. And done them very well! Just look back at all the Think! work done by AMV. These campaigns were all designed to make our roads safer, whether by cutting speeds or incidences of drink-driving, and they used a range of behavioural techniques, from social stigma to peer pressure, to produce their desired behavioural outcome. Yes, there was creative licence, but the action was pinpointed, instead of hiding behind some abstract marketing slogan.
The list goes on from recent blood donor campaigns getting us to donate more to Change 4 Life all trying to get us to eat healthier. All these campaigns were grounded in solid behavioural principles, much of which popularised by the likes of Nudge Theory which has dominated government departments for the past decade.
So, if I had a New Year’s resolution for the ad industry, it would be this. Never forget, we are in this industry to change people’s behaviours, whatever the brief, and more likely than not, this will start from thinking small rather than big (and if we do this, then just maybe we have some hope of sticking to our resolution!).