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Why Clarity and Creativity are Sorely Needed to Change Behaviour During Covid-19

London, UK
Nudge alone is not enough - Ogilvy’s Pete Dyson talks to Laura Swinton about the levers that governments need to pull
Scenes of lively parks and cafes at the weekend and packed trains during the week in London showed that although we’re under lockdown and the threat of Covid-19 requires some drastic changes in habits… it takes more than a few softly worded suggestions to rewire our behaviours.

But ‘behaviour change’ has been something of a buzzword in the UK – before the lockdown, the country’s leadership had been talking about nudging the public to adopt changes like staying at home and washing hands. Since then, measures have stepped up with emergency legislation enacted. However, when it comes to fostering positive changes, there’s still much the government could do to leverage communications and creativity, says Pete Dyson, who is a senior consultant and behaviour change expert at Ogilvy Consulting.

As Pete explains, the UK government has, since the days of Prime Minister David Cameron, been keen on one aspect of behaviour change called ‘nudge’, which they’ve used to encourage exercise and healthy eating. However, he argues, the challenge is far bigger than that.

“The UK government has put behaviour change at its heart because it has been a pioneer in applying behavioural science, in a particular subset of behaviour change called ‘nudge’. I am keen to emphasis it is a subset of behaviour change,” he explains. 

Pete frames behaviour change as what people must do, should no, can do and want to do. “Laws are a way of forcing ‘must do’, they’re an effective way of getting people to do what they don’t want to do. Communications are important when it comes to what people ‘should do’, policies and tools enable people to do what they ‘can do’, so an example is opening supermarkets early for the elderly. Whereas nudge is about lowering friction particularly in people who are already inclined to do something, pushing them over the edge,” says Pete, sharing some frustration that the early focus had been on the latter part. “It looks like the size of the issue is much, much bigger than tipping people over the edge to do what they want to do already. Either everything works together or it doesn’t work at all.”

A big gap he’s seen is in how the government has used communication. This week, MullenLowe has been working with the government to put out TV, social and outdoor ads and updates with the Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty. However, before they got involved, the government had been relying on the media to interpret complicated new concepts and guidance from bodies like the NHS had been vaguely worded.

“There are complicated issues to get across and it’s being left to media. There’s technical terminology that even if you’re proficient in the English language you would struggle to know what’s meant by self-isolation, herd immunity,” says Pete. 

The past few weeks have seen our vocabularies explode. Social distancing, herd immunity and epidemiologist. As the UK government advised people to avoid non-essential travel or to self-isolate if they have a ‘persistent cough’ – but, specifically, what do these even mean?

“That’s hard to define and I get that symptoms come on at different points. The use of the word persistent is not good,” says Pete, who lives in a part of East London which is home to many immigrants. “There are so many people here for whom English is not their first language – they’re being completely let down by this. These communications need to do much more than reach people with a university degree.”

So clear copywriting is vital tool in the behaviour change arsenal. Another, suggests Pete, is creative metaphor. “Creativity really gets that across well. I think on Monday last week, it landed like fighting a fire, which is like suppression. Versus the rising tide, which is that you accept it’s happening and work around it , which is more of a long term. Now we’re seeing, as is usually the case, that it’s being framed as a war,” says Pete. “It’s something people can get behind but I have some concerns about it being framed as  a war because it emphasises technological preparation – we’re going to go to factories to build things, but you can’t build your way out of people hugging each other or going to visit Mum on Mother’s Day.”

Clarity and metaphor, for example, could be extremely useful for communicating the riskiness of certain behaviours. Before the lockdown came into effect on Monday, even people in the ‘at risk’ groups were heading out to pubs and cafes – people who would be reluctant to ride a bicycle in the street or fly on an aeroplane in their day-to-day life because of perceived dangers.

Ultimately the onset and the ever-changing nature of the pandemic demonstrates the need for governments to have prepared communications strategies. “The piece I’m keen to press home is it’s another big social issue where people focus on innovation, technology and equipment where I don’t see that there’s not equally reasonable to say just as we should have stockpiled masks and safety equipment and beds, we should have stockpiled a broad communications strategy more than the wash your hands posters,” says Pete. “It’s moving very fast and I appreciate that – but you could already see the direction that spain and Italy were going. There should have been lots of communication about what social distancing means and also really helping people understand terminology.”

Going forward, while there’s still the question of enforcing and maintaining behaviours such as social distancing, the next big question will be managing the fallout of longterm isolation and helping people to deal with that in healthy ways. Youtube fitness specialists such as Joe Wicks have been immensely popular, garnering millions of live views and Sports England has just launched a campaign to encourage exercise at home. But for those feeling the loneliness there are other concerns too, such as home drinking habits. “I’ve been struck that to many people in professional services, this is more about working from home and in their heads they’re spending their time adapting to working from home. But I don’t think the penny’s really dropped that it’s going to be many, many months of not seeing anyone they know. What happens if you haven’t sat around a dinner table with friends or gone to social events or anything like that?”

Looking to the future, there’s no doubt that the for behaviour change specialists – and remember, everyone in advertising ultimately is trying to change behaviours – there will be much to learn. Masses of data and case studies to show what has been most effective. We’ll also see that some new behaviours will have become embedded at a scale that will change society and business for months and years to come. 

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