Taking a Cue from the Business World: What the Public Sector Could Learn about Influencing Behavior

March 26, 2008

What's the best way to convince a 40-year-old to stop smoking? Tell him that he'll get lung cancer and die? Not necessarily.

Economics Professor Kerry Smith of the W. P. Carey School of Business says that the best quit-smoking message comes out of an understanding of the reasons why people smoke in the first place.

According to Smith, people who still smoke in their 40s -- despite the fact that they should know better given the inundation of messages about how unhealthy smoking is -- do it for three reasons: first, because death seems in the distant future; second, because they see death as a "clean kill;" and third, because smoking helps alleviate stress.

Understanding those three reasons has helped experts craft a message that is effective in getting those smokers to quit: describing to them what their deaths will be like. "Explaining to the 40-year-old smoker that his death will be a long, drawn-out, excruciatingly painful process -- in all the gory detail -- is a very effective way to entice him to quit," Smith said.

Understanding what makes people tick

The trick is in understanding the motivation behind people's actions -- that's the key to crafting effective messages that influence people's behaviors. It's a trick that marketers have come to live by.

"Testing people's reactions to different messages is kind of an obvious answer -- marketers do it all the time," Smith said. "Unfortunately, there's not yet an incentive to design health and environmental policies that use those kinds of tests. It's different than in marketing for profit-maximizing companies."

John Lastovicka, a professor of marketing at the W. P. Carey School, agrees. He said that understanding why people make certain decisions, and then testing messages designed to influence those decisions, is typical in the for-profit world but less common in the public arena.

Yet working to understand why people make decisions is key to crafting messages that will effectively influence people's behavior, Lastovicka said.

In the early 1990s, Lastovicka worked with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to create television messages that would help curb drinking and driving. He targeted a demographic particularly prone to drinking and driving: men between the ages of 18 and 28. "Young males typically engage in high-risk, thrill-seeking behavior, including drinking and driving," Lastovicka said.

Most of us would assume that the best message to curb drinking and driving is: "If you drink and drive, you could be killed, or you could kill someone else." But Lastovicka found that wasn't a message that resonated particularly well with young men.

Lastovicka and his team conducted surveys to understand the "decision calculus" behind drinking and driving among men ages 18-28. "We wanted to understand the perceived benefits and costs in these young men's minds. What we found was that the perceived benefit was having a great time. The perceived cost was not risk of death, as we might have assumed, but risk of damage to their cars."

"Young men," Lastovicka explained, "think they're invulnerable -- so they're not going to get hurt or caught by the police, but the thought of damage to their car was enough to give them pause."

That survey research led Lastovicka and his team to craft a message that would really hit home with their target audience. Lastovickas explained that it was a multimedia advertising campaign funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) featuring three young men at a junkyard, surveying damage to their friend's car. Their friend had been in an alcohol-related accident the night before.

Lastovicka's group then ran a field experiment to test the effectiveness of the advertising campaign. The campaign ran in one media market to test its effects on drinking and driving against a control location in another media market, where no campaign took place. The results: the campaign proved effective at reducing the incidence of incapacitating road accidents and self-reported drinking and driving behaviors and beliefs.

Public forays into message positioning

Both Smith and Lastovicka worked with public groups -- the EPA for Smith and the NHTSA for Lastovicka -- to see if positioning messages like for-profit companies do would be effective in the public arena, too.

Both professors' studies determined: yes, public entities can benefit from the kind of message positioning that is marketers' bread-and-butter in the for-profit world.

Lastovicka found that research-based advertising messages based on an understanding of why people drink and drive, while expensive to produce, were quite effective in reducing incidents of drunken driving.

"Our ads were amazingly efficient," Lastovicka said. "Really, you don't have to prevent a large number of accidents to get an enormous payback. With the average drunken driving accident -- at the time -- costing $181,000 (a so-called NHTSA-designated Class A incapacitating or fatal accident), ads that cost several hundred thousand dollars to produce and paid advertising media schedules that cost a million dollars to air are cost-effective, even if this prevents only a few dozen accidents."

Smith worked with the EPA in the 1990s to evaluate the effectiveness of their public information campaigns. One was a campaign to get people in high-risk areas to have their homes tested for radon. EPA favored the low-cost approach: stuffing notices in people's utility bills. But Smith's team found that approach to be highly ineffective. "People just tossed the notices in the trash," he said.

What did work, Smith found, was convincing local politicians -- the mayor and town council in one case -- to have their homes tested. It made a big news story in the local papers, and although the coordination and time of EPA personnel involved made the approach more expensive than the utility bill mailer, it proved far more effective.

Smith and his team also tested posters. The EPA poster featured a few dozen zip codes and the words: "Homes in these zip codes have tested positive for radon. Has yours?" But the poster was so busy -- completely filled with zip codes -- and the message so hard to understand, that it didn't resonate with the target audience.

Smith and his team created their own poster that featured a picture of a baby sitting on the floor and the message: "What would you do to protect your children from radon?" Not surprisingly, the poster proved far more effective -- not least for its emotional appeal.

Working to understand what makes people tick -- that people care more about protecting their children from harm than what their neighbors are doing, for example -- seems so obvious. Marketers in for-profit companies do it all the time. Sometimes, in fact, it seems that marketers in the for-profit world know more about their consumers than their consumers do. As a result, they're able to craft messages that are amazingly effective at enticing us to action.

So why don't public entities follow their lead? Expense is certainly an issue -- a well-crafted TV ad can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But, as Lastovicka and Smith have shown, more expensive marketing techniques are that much more effective.

For enticing people to action -- from quitting smoking, calling a cab after one too many, or testing their homes for radon -- nothing works quite like a well-crafted message.

Bottom Line:

  • Working to understand why people make decisions is key to crafting messages that will effectively influence people's behavior.
  • Understanding why people make certain decisions, and then testing messages designed to influence those decisions, is typical in the for-profit world but less common in the public arena.
  • Public sector groups can benefit from the same kind of message positioning that works in driving consumer behavior in the for-profit world.
  • Even though well-crafted messages are more expensive to produce, they're much more effective.