Advertising is meant to either effect a change in perception or behaviour. Sometimes, the former can lead to the latter. Most of the advertising that we are exposed to on mass media – for consumer goods primarily, operate in the realm of changing perception, to build affinity. Communication is also a tool to change behaviour, whether it is about getting consumers to invest in mutual funds or motivating them to quit smoking.
Over the years, what is come to be known as public-service advertising has aimed to get people to quit smoking, deter drunk driving, follow traffic rules, eat healthy and so on. Many of them, especially in India have largely go unnoticed or not taken seriously. Slogans to deter drunken driving or speeding are common in state & national highways and on occasions such as New Year’s eve. ‘Don’t drink & drive’ has become a passive line and pretty much in the same tone as ‘have a nice day’.
Smoking (and drinking to an extent) is a manifestation of irrational behaviour. We know that it is harmful yet continue to indulge in it for various reasons – its addictive nature, belief that it is stress buster and such like. Over the years, various approaches have been taken to ‘educate’ people to quit smoking.
A few campaigns have tried to evoke a sense of revulsion about smoking – as there is a tiny voice inside the smoker’s head which knows that its causing harm to the lungs and a bad smell to boot.
Among the most effective campaigns in evoking a behavioural change must be the decade-long campaign undertaken by Traffic Accident Commission, Melbourne.
The hallmarks of the campaign was that it took the issue head on and did not couch it under niceties. The campaign deliberately ’shocked’ the viewer and shamed the drunk driver for taking that decision. The highly emotional and graphic ads (using stunt doubles from Hollywood) focused on the cost of a drunk driving accident. Visuals of how families and loved ones are affected due to an act of bravado would definitely shame someone who was planning to drink & drive.
Over the years, various reasons for road accidents – speeding, drugs, ‘just one drink’ were researched and addressed in specific campaigns with actionable to-do’s – e.g. ‘reduce speed by 10 km/hr’.
The campaign was effective in bringing accidents down in Victoria:
On 10 December, 1989 the first TAC commercial went to air. In that year the road toll was 776 – by 2012 it had fallen to 303.
Here are some of the ads:
Recently, South Australia took it a step further by calling drunk drivers selfish pricks.
So in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, what can we in India learn from this approach with regards to getting the general public to follow safety guidelines – specifically wear masks properly when in public spaces?
While #MaskUp appeals have taken place from various officials and others, I cannot recall any one campaign which shakes the viewer out of inertia and take ‘masking up’ seriously. The closest one I came across was this one, as part of the ‘Power of print‘ initiative from the Times of India.
Even here, ‘spot the serial killer’ idea which could evoke a sense of guilt among those not masking up properly is perhaps lost in all the other messaging that was part of the ad.
What we need is a hard-hitting campaign which instills fear in those taking the responsibility of masking up lightly. India is a chaotic country not used to discipline. We have always been in situations where the demand exceeds supply. So we don’t follow queues or instructions. Despite the air hostess requesting all to switch off phones while take off there will always be that one person who will continue using the phone regardless. We may stand in a line in the bus shelter but rush in together when the bus arrives. The jostling to get inside the Mumbai local trains and our behaviour when a flight lands with several rushing towards the exit or opening the over-head luggage bin are all manifestations of how we behave in public spaces. Masking up is not seen as a responsibility and the passive communication thus far is not helping.
Needless to say, mass media communication is not the only intervention needed to effect behavioural change. On-ground deterrents, processes and other policies & measures are also needed. In the corporate world, smoking has become uncool (thankfully) over the past decade or more. It was perhaps brought about by self realisation about health, unhygienic work spaces, empathy for others combined with strict measures from the enterprises themselves.
The central & state governments should rope in professional agencies and create such in regional languages for maximum reach and impact. We have lost time in ‘request’ mode and probably not driven home the seriousness of the behavioural change needed.